The profile of families has changed over the years. One of the changes we see is that grandparents are increasingly becoming the primary caregivers of their grandchildren.
According to Statistics Canada, it is estimated that almost 50% of Canadians aged 45 and over are grandparents.(1) Almost 8% of those live with their grandchildren in a shared household.(2) But it is not a Canadian phenomenon. It is estimated that almost 2.7 million grandparents were the primary caregivers of their grandchildren in the United States. In Australia, more than 25% of children under the age of 12 receive regular care from their grandparents. In China, the massive migration of parents to urban centres means that more than 25% of children live with their grandparents in rural areas.(3)
Taking care of your grandchildren can be one of the most rewarding experiences: being able to be much more closely connected to your grandchildren's world, and providing them stability, safety, wisdom, and love. However, some grandparents (as many other caregivers) may face challenges such as burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. Could interventions to support these grandparents better equip them to face their new parenting responsibilities and help to reduce the negative psychological effects they may experience?
What research tells us
A recent high-quality systematic review has looked into this issue.(3) This review analyzed 20 studies examining the effectiveness of various interventions aimed at improving the well-being of grandparents raising grandchildren. Although Hispanic and Caucasian grandparents were included in some interventions, the characteristics of the participants generally reflect the profiles of grandparents living with their grandchildren in the United States, with an over-representation of African American grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren. The participants, aged 55 and 62, were mostly divorced, separated or widowed, unemployed and with a low level of education.
Group interventions: support and education
Support and education are two important components of group interventions, as several studies have shown. Support groups are inexpensive, easy to set up, and appeared effective. To respond to the problems raised by grandparents, various educational components are adapted to their needs: identification of stress factors, improvement of coping strategies, parenting training, management of interpersonal relationships, identification of resources available, and practical skills to cope with stress.
Grandparents will also be able to develop better interpersonal skills, which will help them establish clear rules with the parents of their grandchildren, as well as reduce potential sources of conflict that may exacerbate their stress.
As for training, these can be given in different formats to adapt to the context of each: in-person presentations, videos, workbooks, online platforms.
Personalized interventions: home visits by professionals
Personalized services are also provided to grandparents as part of several interventions. For example, home visits by social workers and registered nurses can help them set goals for improving their physical and psychological well-being, as well as increasing their access to resources and social support. In addition to the management of special cases by social workers, registered nurses perform care needs assessments.
Significant effects on grandparents
These interventions can have positive mental health effects, including reduced stress, anxiety and depression. Improving the mental health of grandparents can be a long-term task, as stress, anxiety and depression are associated with complex factors, such as evolving child-care needs, insufficient social support, or family tensions and other relational strains.
We see that reducing social isolation must be at the forefront of interventions for grandparents raising grandchildren. A comprehensive family approach that takes into account the needs of grandparents, parents and children is also promising. In fact, we need to increase social support, but also reduce conflicts between grandparents and other family members.
… and with grandchildren!
Children raised by their grandparents may exhibit behavioural problems due to feelings of abandonment, neglect and abuse or their exposure to parental addiction. Supporting and updating education strategies helps grandparents to act appropriately to reduce the difficulties experienced by their grandchildren.
Thanks to targeted interventions, everyone benefits and sees their quality of life improved.