Do we ask too much of grandparents?
An opinion poll, conducted by Amarach Research for the Iona Institute (of which I am a patron) in 2013 examined public attitudes to childcare. Only 17pc of the public saw State-sponsored day care as the preferred option for young children under five years of age. Half (49pc) reported their preference for children in this age group was to be looked after during the day by a parent at home and a quarter (27pc) thought the next best was to be looked after by another family member, such as a grandparent. The rest had no opinion.
Yet in reality it is not possible for all children to be cared for by their mother at home since many work outside the home, either by choice, or more often because the need for financial security mandates this.
According to a recent report from the Growing Up In Ireland survey, grandparents play a role in looking after one-third of infants in childcare, while an Ipsos MRBI Family Values poll a few months ago showed that grandparents were the most utilised source of childcare (42pc) for working parents.
So parents want it and grandparents do it according to these figures. Is this alignment good for grandparents? The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) project being carried out by researchers from Trinity College examined 7,500 older people, and it found a huge reliance on grandparents as parents seek to avoid crippling childcare costs.
Around 60pc of grandparents had looked after their grandchildren at some point in the previous month and almost one in five looked after their grandchildren for more than 60 hours a month. It found that depressive symptoms were higher in this group than in those spending less time caring for their grandchildren. It also found that these symptoms were modified when grandparents also participated in social or leisure activities and when they had higher levels of education.
So while at first reading it might seem that grandparents are adversely affected by the childcare demands placed upon them - when arguably they should be enjoying this time of their lives - the study also found that other factors in their lives influenced this and when these were factored in the differences in depressive symptoms disappeared.
It is also important to realise that symptoms are not the same as illness and mood symptoms are very common in the general population.
Other studies have confirmed that the amount of time spent caring for grandchildren is indeed important and that grandparents who are full-time carers are certainly vulnerable to mental health problems such as depression, and to cognitive decline. Although some of the latter may be stress-related, which can impact on the ability to complete pencil and paper tests of memory and concentration.
For those who are providing supplementary care, additional to that given by the parents, the picture is different and is more positive once the background factors are taken into account .
Interestingly a recent large multinational study in Europe, headed by Bruno Arpino from the Department of Political and Social Sciences (Barcelona), reported that cognitive function was either unchanged or improved among those caring for grandchildren when background confounders are controlled.
An interesting question is whether there is a generational interest in grandparents providing altruistic care. Economic models suggest that this time investment in future generations may lead to greater kindness towards parents and grandparents in return. In other words, the time and emotional investment may be beneficial in the long term.
After all, in traditional societies when multiple generational households were the norm, caring for the old was considered a healthy and appropriate response to the earlier years of care they had lavished on their offspring. There is no data on this in respect of the likely advantages to the elders, but it is an important question.
The final question is whether being looked after by a grandparent is good for the child in comparison to being cared for in a creche. There is little data on this but the limited studies that are available, such as the Millenium Cohort study from Britain, suggests that children cared for by grandparents from advantaged families benefit in terms of cognitive development, while the opposite is true for those from disadvantaged families. Research in this area is in its infancy.
Health & Living