The care grandparents give to their grandchildren can help increase their happiness and well-being and decrease loneliness, depression and anxiety, according to a new study carried out on elderly Chinese-Americans.
The study was co-authored by Dr Fengyan Tang, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The researchers used cross-sectional data from the “Population Study of Chinese Elderly,” known as PINE, which was conducted on more than 3,000 Chinese-Americans aged 60 years and older and living in Chicago from July 2011 to June 2013.
The study was published online recently in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The PINE study is a population based epidemiological study of older Chinese adults and assessed the validity of five psychological and social well-being indicators which are depressive symptoms, loneliness, social support, elderly abuse and factors that are closely related to the Chinese cultural idea of health and well-being.
The PINE study conducted in the US is the largest study on elderly Chinese people among the Western countries with the purpose to inspect the mental well-being of older Chinese people.
According to the Bureau of the Census, an increase of older Chinese-Americans from 2000 to 2010 has been four times as rapid when compared to the general older population. In addition and in contrast to the general aging population, Chinese grandparents are also heavily involved in co-parenting and caring for their grandchildren but also face a lot of difficulties in this activity due to cultural change, physical disability, generation gap, language barriers and housing and financial problems.
As a result, the grandparents experience both negative and positive health outcomes related to childcare and can experience conflicts with family members related to parenting and cultural values. The grandparents are also more likely to share childrearing and childbearing with their adult children rather than solve problems for them such as alcohol and drug addiction, mental health problems and issues related to detention by law.
In the current study, initially 2,365 elderly answered questions about grandparent childcare and 818 of them were selected to spend an average of 12 hours a week on childcare.
After the 12-week period, the participants were tested for depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress and loneliness. They completed the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) for depressive symptoms, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale—Anxiety (HADS-A) for anxiety, the 10-item version of the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) for stress and the three-item R-UCLA Loneliness Scale for loneliness. Independent variables like sociodemographic characteristics (age, sex, personal income, marital status, etc) were also taken into account.
The 818 participants who filled the questionnaires were asked questions like, “How often do you feel pressured by your sons or daughters to take care of their children?” and about 80% of them reported no burden in caring for their grandchildren, did not feel pressurized by their adult children and experienced no negative effects. As compared to non-caregivers, they experienced better psychological health, received positive support and had 40% lower levels of depressive symptoms, 20% lower anxiety, 10% less stress and 60% less likely to experience loneliness. However, they also reported higher levels of negative pressure due to the demands from the families.
Some grandparents also experienced this kind of pressure from their adult children and who believed they had no choice apart from providing care to their grandchildren reported higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress.
The study’s co-author Dr Tang says, “Caring for grandchildren can be a burden, a blessing, or both. Enjoy the time with your family and grandchildren–just be in control of how much time you spend caregiving.”
For Chinese grandparents, caregiving is more like a family obligation passed down by generations and, according to them, which enhances family bonding and future support in old age.
In contrast to the lives of old Chinese people, old American people in nursing homes can experience pain, sleep disturbance, significant weight loss or gain and have a generally depressed mood. Additionally, depression can be “contagious”, as in if one spouse is depressed, the other is at increased risk of depression.
Some immigrant families send their children back to China for grandparents to rear, and as child caring is a demanding activity, sometimes grandparents have to quit their jobs to rear their grandchildren, a practice that is not common in the Western culture.
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The CDC reports that 7 million people in the US aged 65 years and above are affected by depression and are at higher risk of chronic diseases and consequently higher healthcare costs than those with only chronic diseases. Additionally, elderly people aged 65 and above account for 16% to 17% of suicide deaths in the US.
Researchers have long reported negative effects being lonely has on the health in old age as loneliness increases depression in them and ultimately physical and mental problems. Therefore, the health and well-being of older people is affected by their social atmosphere and mood states.
Being married or having a significant other also greatly reflected the well-being of both persons in a positive manner and they experienced a reduced chance of feeling lonely. Moreover, children and grandchildren staying with their old parents did not allow them to stay lonely for long, reducing their chances of depressive symptoms.
Grandparents caring for their grandchildren provide significant benefit to both their children and their grandchildren because they can provide a more personalized and warm childcare experience as well as provide family bonding when compared to childcare services.
Caring for their grandchildren can also be beneficial in other ways as they enjoy spending time with them which can give them a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. It can also lead to a more active lifestyle, healthier habits as well as a reduction in smoking behaviors.
On an opposite note, it was reported in a similar study that caring for their grandchildren can add considerable exertion on them due to their failing health and alertness. A large portion of literature suggests that fulfilling these activities can induce stress on them and it takes a health toll. Especially regarding very young children, day to day care can be physically demanding and can involve a loss of sleep and an increased exposure to infections.
In addition, childcare is indirectly associated with changes in the lifestyle and relationships in older people as it can reduce their time for engaging in hobbies, social activities, physical exercise and taking a necessary doctor’s appointment.
Some experts suggest that childcare may strain relationships with their spouse or partner, with their children or grandchildren due to failure at undertaking certain responsibilities.