If I had known how wonderful it would be to have grandchildren, I’d have had them first. ~Lois Wyse
My friend Susan was happily enjoying retirement—travel, dinner with friends, hobbies, and frivolities—when her daughter got pregnant. Soon, Susan was recruited to babysit daily while her daughter went to work. On weekends, emergency grandkid duty prompted Susan to cancel engagements. She stopped throwing parties and inviting us over, and on those rare occasions when we did visit, the background music was little Tommy screaming. Susan’s friends, myself included, considered her servitude a strain and a pain, but in fact, Susan might have been reaping health benefits by spending time with Tommy. Research shows that grandparenting keeps people younger mentally, emotionally, and physically—as long as certain lines are not crossed.
- Cognitive Benefits. An Australian study in 2014 found that post-menopausal women who cared for their grandchildren one day a week performed better on cognitive and memory tests than their peers. On the other hand, those who spent five or more days a week watching the grandkids did worse on these tests. The participants included 186 women, 120 of whom were grandparents. They were tested using three standardized cognitive assessments. The same study also found that one day a week of grandparent duty reduced the risk for Alzheimer’s Disease, while five or more days considerably raised that risk.
Similarly, a 2014 European study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family found that watching grandchildren daily boosted verbal fluency, although other cognitive areas such as memory and math skills suffered when the caretaking was an every-day responsibility. But, the authors of that study noticed that those grandparents who watched grandchildren daily typically were likely to be older, retired, and with less active social lives, and they concluded that those factors were more responsible for any cognitive deficits than were burdens of watching grandchildren.
The lesson here seems to be that a little exposure to grandchildren is great for the brain, but too much might not be. Experts guess that the benefit is the result of increased social interaction, since other studies show that isolation increases depression which increases the risk of cognitive decline. The caveat here is that any risk of cognitive decline in those grandparents who act as full-time or nearly full-time caretakers might have nothing to do with the caretaking, but might instead be the result of having no other meaningful activity in their lives, which is why they’re available for full time babysitting.
- Reduced Depression Risk. A Boston College study of 376 grandparents found that those who had the closest relationships with their adult grandkids also had the lowest rates of depression. (Coincidentally, the young adults who had the closest grandparent relationships also had the lowest depression rates compared to their peers. The benefit works both ways.) The average grandparent in the study was 77 years old and the average grandchild 31, and the study tracked participants for nine years. The highest rates of depression were found among grandparents who received support such as financial assistance or help with chores from family, but who were unable to reciprocate by offering something in return. In other words, feeling needed seems to be the greatest hedge against depression.
The study director, Dr. Sara M. Moorman, noted, “Most of us have been raised to believe that the way to show respect to older family members is to be solicitous and to take care of their every need. But all people benefit from feeling needed, worthwhile, and independent. In other words, let granddad write you a check on your birthday, even if he’s on Social Security and you’ve held a real job for years now.”
- Longer Life. The most remarkable benefit of watching grandchildren seems to be a longevity boost. A recent study of 500 grandparents aged 70 to 103, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, found that those grandparents who provided some care for their grandchildren lived an average of five years longer than those who provided no care. In fact, caring for grandchildren had more positive impact on lifespan than being diagnosed with a chronic or serious illness had negative impact. On the other hand, those who acted as primary caregivers suffered higher mortality rates, again indicating that some responsibility for grandchildren is key, but too much might be deadly.
If you don’t have grandchildren and worry that you’re doomed to a short life as a result, fear not. The study also found that those who helped people in their social networks and who remained socially engaged also reaped a longevity benefit. In fact, a 2013 study found that those subjects who enjoyed active social interaction with either friends or family had a 26-percent lower death risk over a seven-year period compared to those who were socially isolated.
The bottom line seems to be that if you have grandchildren, you’ll benefit if you volunteer for babysitting duty on a regular basis, but you’ll suffer if you take on too much childcare responsibility. If you don’t have grandchildren, you can realize similar benefits by doing something useful for your friends or family regularly and/or making sure you keep an active calendar filled with social interaction.