Grandparents Day 2022 Report

Active Grandparenting: Health and Involvement

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For many grandparents, having grandchildren is one of life’s greatest treasures. Remaining active is one way for grandparents to be able to remain engaged with their grandchildren. In this report, we discuss ways to improve health and wellbeing among older adults, for the benefit of themselves and their grandchildren.

Age and Grandparenting by the Numbers

Since the COVID pandemic, life expectancy has decreased in the United States. In 2021, the average life expectancy for women was 79.1 years and for men 73.2 years. The gender-based life expectancy gap increased from 5.7 years in 2020 to 5.9 years in 2021.

By age 65, grandmothers can expect nearly 20 more years to enjoy grandchildren, while grandfathers have another 17 years. For current and future grandchildren, the current life expectancy at birth has decreased from 77.0 to 76.1 from 2020-2021, with a one-year decline from 2019-2020 of 1.8 years, and a decline of 0.9 years in 2020-2021, the lowest it has been since 1996 and the largest two-year decline in 100 years.

New treatments for COVID, along with improved vaccines, will hopefully increase life expectancy in the next few years. For example, among adults aged 65 and older, treatment with certain COVID antivirals treatments helped reduce hospitalization and death. Consistent with previous studies, older adults who had COVID immunity from vaccines or previous infection had fewer hospitalizations as well.

Orphaned Children and the Rise of Grandparent Care

In the United States, at least 209,100 children have lost a parent, 15,000 have lost a custodial grandparent, and 38,800 have lost a non-custodial co-residential grandparent. With a rise in orphanhood due to COVID, more grandparents have an opportunity to “step up.”

Grandparents Benefit Grandchildren

Despite grandparents increasingly living further away from grandchildren, they are helping more and more with childcare responsibilities, and considered “emotionally and practically bonded to the family.”

Changing Landscape of Grandparenthood

Due in part to changing financial issues, more children live in multigenerational homes with their grandparents. In a study on census data from 1971-2021, the number of people living in multigenerational households increased four-fold, now representing 18% of the US (59.7 million).

In turn, children can benefit from living in multigenerational households with their grandparents. Residential grandmothers are excellent transfers of health knowledge to adolescent granddaughters, including teaching them about contraception and other measures of family planning.

Grandparents raising grandchildren need additional support to promote health care services for grandchildren, as these households have lower rates of children receiving preventive and other necessary medical care for children compared to households led by parents.

Grandparents video chatting—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—can bolster infant socioemotional development. Interacting with infants even across screens resulted in infants displaying more positive emotion when grandparents were engaging. Even when grandparent presence is virtual instead of in-person, grandparents are important for infant development, so don’t be shy about letting your babies chat with grand-ma and grandpa.

One recent review examining how grandparenting is shifting due to the COVID-19 pandemic found a number of changes with far ranging im-plications. The key findings of current and future grandparenting include:

  • Grandparents will have fewer grandchildren and will be older when babies arrive.
  • Grandparents will be more likely to provide childcare, and many will juggle employment simultaneously.
  • Grandparents will be more likely to live with and provide custodial care for grandchildren.
  • Grandparents will be more likely to provide care to more generations, and more of those providing and receiving care will have disabilities.
  • Grandparents will be more likely to cover more expenses for multiple generations.
  • Grandparents will be more likely to use electronics to connect with grandchildren.

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Promoting Grandparent Health

Healthier grandparents can be more engaged with their grandchildren. Here, we highlight three ways to im-prove wellbeing for grandparents: increased exercise, protecting skin, and staying up-to-date on all recommended vaccinations.

Exercise: How much physical activity do older adults need?

Physical activity is beneficial for your health. The CDC recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. Moderate exercise includes brisk walking OR 74 minutes of vigorous activity. Vigorous activity includes: hiking, jogging, or running. Other activities include 2 days of strength exercising or 3 days of balance activities.

New theories of the “active grandparent hypothesis” suggest that staying active, even moderately, is key to reducing disease and increasing longevity among grandparents. Some hypothesize that through the process of natural selection more active grandparents survived, thereby increasing life expectancy over time. So, while exercise can help grandparents live longer and healthier, it can also help improve generations of grandchildren. Grandparents can help grandchildren by promoting activity, with both parents and grandparents highlighting the need of children to enjoy playing outside, seeing outdoor spaces as optimal for preschooler play. The availability of outdoor play space is a barrier to be aware of for some families and communities.

Skin care:

Whether it is going for a walk with grandchildren or playing in the park, many grandparents enjoy spending time outdoors with their grandchildren. However, rates of melanoma, or skin cancer due to sun exposure, continually increase in adult over 65 years of age. Findings from the CDC show that 18% of older adults without sensitivity to the sun do not regularly use sunscreen. Forty-four percent of older men use long sleeve clothes as their main source sun protection. More older women (47%) try to stay in the shade than older men (37%). Health experts recommend older adults continue to practice safe sun exposure by wearing daily sunscreen, staying in the shade, wearing hats, and long-sleeved clothing. To avoid vitamin D deficiencies, which are related to increased depression metabolic risk factors, and COVID morbidity and mortality while also protecting skin, older adults can and should add vita-min D supplements to their health care regiment.

Vaccines:

As bodies age, immune systems weaken, increasing risk for many diseases. Given that 60% of flu hospitalizations are in people 65 and older, the CDC recommends that older adults receive yearly flu vaccines specific for seniors. In addition to flu and COVID vaccines, adults 50 or older should get the Td or Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis), shingles, pneumococcal con-jugate (PCV15 or PCV20), and hepatitis B for those with related risk factors. As vaccine technologies improve, new targeted vaccines will become available, including COVID vaccines aimed at certain variants.

 

Our central tenet is “Children Thrive when Families Thrive.” Established in 2020, FCHIP is housed at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, in the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute and the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Outcomes, Research and Evaluation Center.

Suggested Citation: Guzman Z., Simon C., Garfield C. 2022. Active Grandparenting: Health and Involvement. Family and Child Health Innovations Program (FCHIP) Report.