Help Others and Help Yourself

Caregiving can promote volunteering and increase longevity

Grandparenting – up to a point – benefits health and well-being

Given that chronic stress can adversely affects our health, what can we do to defuse those undesirable effects? Recent research suggests a way: help other people. The Changing Lives of Older Couples Study followed married couples with the husband at least 65 years of age living in the Detroit metro area. Researchers used data from 846 of the study subjects to determine if helping others altered the relationship between stress and mortality after five years of follow-up. Among subjects who did not provide help to others during the previous year, stress was associated with a 30% increase in risk of dying. But among those who provided help to others, stress was not associated with an increased risk of dying. Thus, helping others buffered the effect of stress on risk of dying. Most of us probably think that the benefits of helping others apply only to those being helped. This study, however, indicates that the benefits may also apply to the persons doing the helping. The documented benefits of developing social support may arise partly from helping others.

Could providing child care help older adults maintain better cognitive functioning? Italian researchers used data from 10,370 participants in the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe to find out. Providing child care had a positive effect on verbal fluency, but not on numeracy, immediate recall, and delayed recall. Verbal fluency reflects crystallized memory, while numeracy, immediate recall, and delayed recall reflect fluid memory. Crystallized memory is more susceptible to improvement with age compared to fluid memory. Effects were similar results for grandmothers and grandfathers after accounting for level of engagement. Grandparenting might be a cognitively stimulating social activity and a way to transfer inter-generational culture.

Grandparents provide substantial amounts and varying levels of care to their grandchildren. Some research suggests that grandparents who have custodial care of their grandchildren are less likely to formally volunteer, perhaps because of the grandparents’ high levels of time-demanding and emotionally draining responsibilities. On the other hand, grandparents who provide non-custodial care to their grandchildren may find volunteering more attractive as a way to build their social capital and/or assume a new role in the world.

Researchers at Miami University in Ohio used data for 13,785 participants in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study to find out. Levels of grandparent care for their grandkids were categorized as 1) substantial non-residential care (more than 1,000 hours of care over the previous two years), 2) limited non-residential care (from 100-1,000 hours of care over the previous two years), and 3) not providing care (less than 100 hours of care over previous two years). Volunteering was categorized as either yes or no.

Forty-seven percent of grandparents who reported substantial grandchild care also volunteered compared to 37 percent of those reporting limited non-residential care, 32 percent providing care and 21 percent who were raising a grandchild. After accounting for confounding factors, grandparents who reported substantial nonresidential grandchild care were 58 percent more likely to volunteer than those who provided no grandchild care and nearly twice as likely compared to grandparents raising a grandchild. Thus, being a grandparent and providing care for a grandchild predicted increased likelihood of volunteering, but only up to a point. Full-time grandchild caregivers were less likely to volunteer, possibly reflecting limited human capital resources.

Caregiving can be viewed from an evolutionary perspective as contributing to one’s own fitness—the increased likelihood of passing one’s genes on to successive generations. Hormonal and neural systems may activate during prosocial behavior, such as caregiving, that’s provided to kin as well as non-kin. If so, the longevity benefit of grandparenting accrue apply to non-custodial caregiving provided to grandchildren and non-grandchildren.

Researchers tested this idea using data for 516 participants in the Belin Aging Study between 1990 and 2019. Caregiving grandparents had greater likelihood of survival over 20 years than non-caregiving grandparents or non-grandparents. About half of the non-caregiving grandparents or non-grandparents were alive after five years, while half of the caregiving grandparents were alive after ten years. Similarly, half of the non-grandparent participants who did not give instrumental help to children were alive after five years, while half of the non-grandparent participants who gave instrumental support to children were alive after ten years. Lastly, childless participants who supported others in their social network had higher survival over 15 years than childless participants who did not support others. Grandparenting may represent a special case of helping behavior provided by relatives or non-relatives leading to greater longevity. This study supports the proposition that providing support to others meaningfully benefits the person providing the support.

A new systematic review of the grandparenting literature identified 92 relevant articles that investigated grandparenting in relation to their health and well-being. The researchers classified grandparenting in three categories: 1) custodial care of one or more grandchildren (grandparents live with and have primary care of their grandchildren , 2) three-generational living arrangement (grandparents, grandchildren, and their parents living together), and 3) non-coresiding care (grandparents provide various types and frequencies of care but don’t live with their grandchildren).

With regard to custodial care, researchers found 68 percent of the associations between grandparenting and their health and well-being were negative, 5 percent were neutral, and 27 percent were  positive.  For three-generation category, 39 percent of the associations were negative and 39 percent positive, with 22 percent neutral.  For the non-coresiding the category, 69 percent of the associations were positive, 19 percent negative, and 14 percent neutral.  Grandparents in a custodial care arrangement are more likely to report negative outcomes with their health and well-being, while grandparents in the non-coresiding category are more likely to report positive associations. Grandparents who assume full, day-to-day responsibility for their grandkids may be more likely to lack sufficient physical and psychological resources to cope with this high level of added responsibility. Grandparents who don’t live with their grandchildren and who provide part-time support seem more likely to possess the requisite physical and psychological resources.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment