Grandparent Health Around the World
Grandparents can play a positive and impactful role in their grandchildren’s lives. This year, FCHIP shares current demographics of grandparents in the United States and around the world, presenting ways in which grandparents and grandchildren can improve each other’s physical and mental health. Here, we highlight grandparents’ ever-important roles.
Demographics & Grandparents
The number of grandparents globally has increased in the past few decades – with grandparents now making up roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. Due to demographic factors such as increased longevity and smaller families, the ratio of grandparents to children is rising. Currently, there are 1.5 billion grandparents worldwide, with the number of grandparents projected to be 2.1 billion by 2050.
In the United States, approximately 67 million adults are grandparents, with an average grandparent age of 67 years old. While a quarter of mid-life adults (40-64) are grandparents, about 70 percent of adults 65 and older are grandparents.
Grandparents in the USA
Grandparents may need support to better meet the needs of grandchildren in their care. A number of states have begun offering support via educational activities for youth, formal trainings and home visitations to assist grandparent caregivers. Financial strains for grandparents living with children can be improved through increased safety nets; for example, Social Security benefits, which can provide consistent income, lower the poverty rate 17.6 percentage points for grandparent households and 7.9 percentage points for three-generation households.
Along with increased longevity, Americans are also working longer and parents are paying more for child care. A new policy available for a very limited number of workers – grandternity leave – provides work leave for the birth or adoption of a new grandchild to help offset costs and improve benefits for older workers.
Grandparents Around the World
Although less common in the United States, globally, grandparents often serve as surrogate parents to their grandchildren. This may be in response to family crises and other challenges such as poverty, disease epidemics, and migration. Grandparents can provide families with childcare, financial resources, mentoring, or custodial care. In Mexico, a grandmother’s death reduces a mother’s employment by 12%, suggesting that grandparent involvement may improve gender gaps in the workforce for new mothers.
Caring for children can also impact grandparent caregivers, for example in China, with poorer sleep quality and lower quality of life; however, higher income and close family ties can buffer this effect. Grandparent involvement is especially beneficial in rural areas of China and with younger children, so increased support and resources supporting custodial grandparents can benefit both older adults and their grandchildren.
Over seven million grandparents live with grandchildren, with 1/3 responsible for grandchild care. While 69 percent of non-residing and non-custodial grandparents experience improved outcomes via grandchild involvement, 68 percent of custodial grandparents experience decreased health and wellbeing when assuming custody, which may be due to inadequate resources or some of the other complex reasons why grandparents become “parents again.” Reasons for assuming care of grandchildren include the “Nine Ds” such as divorce, detention, death, and deployment; recent additions to this list are dollars (i.e. financial strain), duty (i.e. feeling responsible for care), and daily grind (i.e. enabling parents to work or go to school).
Health & Physical Activity
Although playing with grandchildren is associated with positive health impacts for grandparents, many older adults express concerns about keeping up and avoiding injury while playing. While muscle mass decreases with age, regular physical activity can counteract this decline, making staying active ever more important as we age. When they see their grandparents exercising, children may be encouraged to engage in physical activities themselves, making exercising together an excellent way to build a healthy lifestyle across generations.
The CDC recommends that adults over age 65 should engage in moderate-intensity physical
activity for 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes each day, five days a week. This should include
activities that promote increased endurance, strength, balance and flexibility:
- Aerobic exercises like brisk walking and climbing stairs improves heart and lung health.
- With grandchildren: pushing a stroller on a walk, put on music and dance together, and play
games like catch, soccer or basketball
- Also called resistance training
- Works against age-related decreases in muscle mass
- Everyday activities like carrying groceries
- With grandchildren: yard work
- Decreases the risk of falls
- With grandchildren: yoga or tai chi, standing on one foot or heel-to-toe walk, as if walking on a tightrope or balance beam
- Improves ability to move freely
- Yoga and stretching after engaging in other forms of exercise
- With grandchildren: songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes for stretching