FCHIP's 2020 Grandparents Day Report

In celebration of Grandparents Day on September 13, 2020, the Lurie Children’s Family & Child Health Innovations Program (FCHIP) wants to help guide families during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The Status of Grandparents in the Pandemic

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While Grandparents Day may not receive the same press as Mother’s or Father’s Day, during this year of pandemic we recognize and appreciate the role of grandparents in families more than ever. Whether grandparents are new or experienced, COVID-19 has definitely altered grandparenting plans. Grandparents, however, have risen to the occasion.

Grandparent’s involvement with their grandchildren has increased over the decades, doubling since the 1970s. Custodial grandparents who have sole responsibility for raising their grandchildren has risen to 2.9 million in 2015. This year, especially, involved grandparents are integral to their grandchildren’s lives.

Issues for Grandparents in the COVID-19 Pandemic

CDC Data: Provisional death counts; COVID-NET - COVID-19-Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network

Grandparenting is typically a time of great joy; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on meeting a new grandbaby, guiding adult children through parenting, and the social benefits of time with grandchildren, which can benefit grandparents and grandchildren alike. Rates of both hospitalization and death from COVID-19 rise as people age, with the highest rates among the oldest Americans living in care facilities.

Loneliness and Social Isolation

Balancing risks is challenging for everyone, but may be especially pronounced for grandparents. Choosing how to avoid social isolation or reduce infectious disease transmission is not simple. Even before the pandemic, nearly one in four older adults were at-risk for loneliness (or what scientists call “perceived social isolation”), which is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, and higher risk of depression and anxiety. Involved grandparenting can reduce these risks, but may create other risks, such as contracting COVID-19. Grandparents are generally of an age where hospitalization and mortality are especially high and get higher with increasing age. Luckily, first reports on loneliness during the pandemic show that older adults have been resilient to loneliness, with an increase during first stages of social distancing, but leveling through stricter stay-at-home orders.

Experiencing Grief, Loss and Worry During the Pandemic

Currently, older adults are grieving the loss of family contact and worried about their future. Grandparents may have a difficult time reentering the workforce, may have lost retirement savings, have had changes or cancellation of health care services, or experienced increased ageism. All of these challenges are even greater for older adults of color, a group especially at risk from COVID-19 infection (Journal of Aging and Social Policy).

Grandparents may experience loss of friends qnd family, spouses, or feel grief following separation from children and grandchildren. To cope with these feelings, grandparents can express their grief with activities such as art, gardening, writing, cooking, music and talking with friends and family. To maintain social connection, shared activities include playing games, exercise and interaction through phones calls and virtual game play.

Benefits of Grandparent Involvement and Staying Connected During a Pandemic

Grandparents help children by serving as role models, helping with schoolwork, and providing wisdom, advice and love. Grandparents who join single parent households are especially beneficial to their grandchildren’s development. Research shows that among adolescents in these families, grandparent involvement is associated with lower rates of smoking and drinking, and higher rates of graduating high school and attend college. Data also shows that during times of crisis and need, grandparents often rise up to increase their involvement with grandchildren.

During this worldwide pandemic, how can grandparents bond with grandchildren? While geographic distance may affect the grandparenting relationship with grandchildren, technological innovations can be used to safely sustain relationships no matter how far away families may live.

Additional ways to maintain long distance connections with grandchildren include:

  1. Learn dances with your grandchildren on TikTok, helping to keep cognitively strong and physically active, while also connecting with your grandchildren.
  2. As your grandchildren return to school virtually or in-person, offer to be a virtual tutor.
  3. Try preparing and having a meal, playing a game, telling jokes, discussing a book together, or telling stories virtually to give your grandchildren some time together and help your children with a parenting break.
  4. Become a foster grandparent, helping children in need.
  5. If you are considering a visit to grandchildren, re-consider if they are high-risk or newborns, or if you are high-risk or planning to travel either to or from an area with high infection rates. Children may be carriers of diseases or exposed if their schools are now offering in-person classes, and being sick far from home may not be ideal (Washington Post, 2020). If you do visit, wear a mask and stay six feet away.

Grandparents living close by can consider some of these options:

  1. Spend socially-distanced time outside together, sitting in camping chairs in a park watching grandchildren ride bikes and play, chat with adult children, go fishing or for a walk.
  2. If you or your children need even more time together or are struggling apart, consider forming a family quarantine pod if you can do so safely. Remember that most transmission is within family, so when you share space, everyone has to follow the same rules for keeping safe and healthy both together and times you are apart.
  3. If you have older grandchildren, offer to take a masked walk together to catch up, have outdoor time together, or set up camping equipment and camp in the backyard.

Regardless of whether grandparents live near or far to their grandchildren, grandparents can maintain their bonds by:

  1. Sharing your wisdom and expertise: whatever your skills, interests or knowledge, consider passing them on to your grandchildren
  2. Financial support: if you are able to help provide financially, consider contributing by sending approved gifts or essentials to lessen the burden on your children
  3. Talk to your children, including their spouses or partners. If you have a better relationship with your grandchildren’s parents, you are more likely to maintain closeness to grandchildren.
  4. Gain a new pen pal, sending letters by mail back and forth with your grandchildren. Send an extra gift like a sticker or word search, or a larger gift via mail like a board game, puzzle, or book.
  5. Bonding with grandchildren can be a real benefit for grandparents, too. Grandparents may experience increased connectivity and improved quality of life, and note the potential for an expanded workforce specializing in aging.
  6. Share your feelings and emotions: age-appropriate discussions with grandchildren about your fears and concerns, even about death, can help them feel heard and understood, and allows you to develop coping mechanisms together and let grandchildren know that you will be there as their loving grandparents

Practice Safe Hugging

Adapted from the New York Times, 2020 

A) For a safe, full-body hug, turn your faces in opposite directions, which prevents you from directly breathing each other’s exhaled particles. Wear a mask.

B) Hugging at knee or waist level lowers risk for direct exposure to droplets and aerosols because faces are far apart. There is potential for the child’s face and mask to contaminate the adult’s clothing. Wash your hands after a visit that includes hugs and consider changing your clothes. The adult also should look away so as not to breathe down on the child.

C) In this scenario, the grandparent is minimally exposed to the child’s exhaled breath. The child could be exposed to the taller person’s breath, so kiss through a mask.