Grandparents Day is a day of extended family celebration and acknowledgment of the importance of the grandparents in our lives. This year, many families are using this time to safely physically re-connect with grandparents after over a year of quarantine and separation. Vaccinations have provided renewed hope to many families eager to partake in family milestones. In one Chicago neighborhood, a group of first-generation grandchildren furthered vaccination efforts by scheduling thousands of vaccines for elderly ‘Abuelos’ (grandparents) so they could promote and encourage individual and community health, and finally hug their beloved family members. Although vaccination rates are on the rise, the current Delta variant surge could alter some family reunions.
Currently, adults aged 50 and above are most likely to become vaccinated; although older adults represent 36.2% of the population, they represent 52.1% of the fully vaccinated. As at least one COVID vaccine has received full FDA approval and doses are currently available for children over 12, grandparents may help influence their adult children to vaccinate grandchildren against diseases they have seen or experienced such as measles and polio, relating trust in other established pediatric vaccines. Given that parent social networks can influence childhood vaccination uptake, and that parenthood may be related to increased COVID vaccine hesitancy, increased grandparent involvement can help promote a larger influence of grandparents in family decision-making, including those related to COVID pediatric vaccines.
Despite higher proportionate vaccination rates for older adults, the unvaccinated continue to be at disproportionate risk, especially as the Delta variant emerges and spreads worldwide. As of 9/1/21, among adults over age 50, over 600,000 Americans have died from COVID; of these deaths, 39% were during 2021. Also, as of 8/14/21, adults ages 50-64 represent 28% and ages 65 and older 44% of all hospitalizations with confirmed COVID cases.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought changes to family’s daily routines, including bringing some grandparents closer, even under the same roof as their children and grandchildren. Multigenerational households has not been a trend we’ve seen since prior to WWII, but there has been a drastic increase during the COVID pandemic as parents try to balance caring for children and working from home. Grandparents have stepped in to help with chores, online learning, and general childcare, causing a reemergence in multigenerational living.
Co-living with family benefits grandparents, decreasing feelings of loneliness and enabling a closer connection with grandchildren. Grandparenting and caring for grand-children is associated with lower mortality compared to non-caregiving grandparents, although the benefits of grandparenting may vary between different racial and ethnic groups. Further, grandparents report improved mental and physical health due to close relationships with grandchildren.
Grandparent involvement also benefits children, especial-ly during times of transition and stress, with strong grand-parent-grandchild relationships associated with fewer adjustment difficulties and greater prosocial behavior for children and adolescence. With the disruption from typical social groups that COVID has caused for children, grandparents can continue to be a much-needed social support system during this challenging time.
Spotlight on Grandparents as Primary Caregivers
The Census Bureau estimates that 2.47 million grandparents were responsible for their own grandchildren in 2019. While most grandparents spend occasional time with grandchildren, including babysitting and helping with online schooling, an increasing number have assumed primary responsibilities. These older adults simultaneously confront the beauties and difficulties of aging alongside the challenges of parenting.
State and federal policies have prioritized legally placing children with relatives such as grandparents when children are unable to stay with parents. Grandparents have specifically reported primary factors that contribute to their decision to assume primary responsibility of their grandchild, including love, concern for emotional/physical safety, and providing normalcy for their grandchildren. More recently, COVID has taken a toll on families and grandparents taking care of grandchildren, with many children losing their caregivers to illness.
Just as vaccines have helped families reunify this year, grandparents often are witness to eventual reunification of parents and children following a period of grandparent custodianship, leading to a need to re-establish the grandparental role. Grandparents play a critical role in ensuring the wellness of their grandchild during changes due to custody, COVID, or anywhere grandchildren need care and support. New custodial grandparents can find additional resources through Grandfamilies.org or AARP’s “Grand families Guide” to support families during these transitions.
Beyond providing family support, Grandparents make overwhelming contributions to their communities with grandparents aged 65 and over volunteering over twice as many hours compared to younger adults. With many families struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, community outreach facilities - such as food pantries - buckled under the dual pressures of increases in demand and new health and safety considerations. While older Americans were reluctant to volunteer at the polls during the 2020 general election, many moved towards virtual volunteerism despite gaps in broadband access and digital literacy Virtual modalities have made the health benefits of volunteering more accessible.
Below are some great ways for grandparents to be involved in their communities: