We have a phrase for it now — the grandparent army — and it describes the rising number of older people who are helping to mind their children’s children.
In Ireland, an increasing number of us are joining the troops, either out of necessity (to rescue cash-strapped young parents), or out of choice (simply because we can).
The most up-to-date indication of this is given by grandmothers who participated in the study, Today’s Mum, which features elsewhere in this edition of Feelgood.
A whopping 61% of them said they believe their daughters are more dependent on them than they themselves were on their mums.
But it’s not just grans who are helping out with the next generation.
As we now live longer and have more vital lives post-retirement in Ireland, both grandparents are lending a hand.
“During the recession, grandparents stepped in for their children who couldn’t afford childcare, because money was so tight. And, now that we are out of that period, it continues, because the parents have got back to work and there are huge crèche fees,” says Dr Patrick Ryan, head of psychology at the University of Limerick.
Research from TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing), in 2015, found that 60% of Irish grandparents had looked after their grandchildren in the previous month. Of those, 15% had clocked up more than 60 hours of childcare.
One of the benefits for grandparents is that childminding might extend their lives. Researchers who studied a database of people aged 70 or older, from the Berlin Ageing Study (BASE), found that those who provided part-time care for grandchildren had a 37% lower mortality risk than those of the same age who didn’t.
But grandparents who take care of grandchildren full-time can become stressed, according to the TILDA research. Those who provided more than 60 hours of childcare a week experienced significantly more depressive symptoms, although the effect was moderated by how much they participated otherwise in social and leisure activities, an aspect that is important for ageing healthily.
To keep stress — and, frankly, resentment, at bay — it’s necessary to lay out the ground rules between grandparents and their adult children on several issues, Ryan tells Feelgood.
“I think it’s always about throwing out on the table, clearly from the start, what you’d like and checking what’s possible. So, if mum or dad want their children to eat raw carrot and lettuce for lunch, and granny and granddad think it should be something else, well, this needs to be thrashed out,” he says.
“Just like grandparents can’t expect all their rules will be followed, equally, parents have to know that grandparents have a say — if they are going to invite them in as kitchen carers. Parents need to be aware that there has to be some flexibility — you give up some of the freedom to be in control, when you hand your child to somebody else. That isn’t the problem; the problem is when you don’t negotiate.”
Those boundary issues extend to respecting grandparents’ own independent lives, also. “Like with any childminder, parents also need to respect that if granny or granddad say they need to finish up by 6pm, because they have another commitment at that time, then 6pm it is. You can’t turn up at 6.40pm. That’s the sort of stuff that becomes problematic, so it’s about being adult about it, having the flexibility and the trust that comes in this relationship with grandparents, but also being clear on the boundaries.”
Clarity is especially needed about finances, also.
“There are no hard-and-fast rules for how this should be done, whether childminding should be paid for or not,” says Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. “You don’t want to take advantage of grandparent generosity and, on the flip side, grandparents often don’t want to be seen as employees.
“Overall, I believe, though, that if it is a mutual agreement and all parties are content, this can be a really wonderful arrangement for the parents, children, and grandparents.”
For parents of young children juggling life and all its stressors, grandparents can provide psychological support, as well as practical, says Ryan.
“They bring wisdom of life experience; they don’t get as panicked or stressed with young children, because they’ve worn the T-shirt and know that, by and large, children are resilient. They’re also able to do it, because they can step away from the immediacy of the family.
“Grandparents should be seen as mentors more than minders to the grandchildren. They can educate, teach, and guide — it’s not just about putting the dinner in front of them and getting homework done, it’s actually much more valuable than that,” he adds.
“It’s a huge demographic reward we now have, as a result of longevity, a resource that needs to be tapped into.”