Grandparents and Grandchildren Can Protect Each Other's Mental Health

Grandparents carry their granddaughter.
Grandparents and their grandchildren play important roles in each other's mental health, a new study finds. (Image credit: Grandparents and granddaughter photo via Shutterstock)

Grandparents and their grown up grandchildren play important roles in each other’s health, a new study finds. The two-decade study found the quality of relationships between the two generations has measurable consequences on the mental well-being of both.

The researchers looked at 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren, and tracked their mental health from 1985 to 2004. They found that both grandparents and adult grandchildren who felt emotionally close to the other generation had fewer symptoms of depression.

"Extended family members, such as grandparents and grandchildren, serve important functions in one another's daily lives throughout adulthood," said study researcher Sara Moorman, professor of sociology at Boston College.

The relationships between extended family members may be more important today than they've ever been, the researchers said. As life expectancy is increasing, generations co-exist for unprecedentedly long periods of time, and they can be sources of support, or strain, across people's lives, the researchers said.

"Now, you can be 40 years old and still have one or more grandparents living, which is historically really new," Moorman said. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

For the study, which was presented today (Aug. 12) in at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York, the participants filled out surveys every few years, answering questions such as how often they helped each other with housework, gave or received rides to the doctor’s office or grocery store, and how well they got along. Participants also reported how often they felt depressive symptoms such as sadness and lack of appetite.

The average grandparent in the study was born in 1917 and the average grandchild in 1963, making them 77 years old and 31 years old, respectively, at the midpoint of the study in 1994.

The results showed that besides the positive mental-health effects of having an emotionally close relationship, it is important for grandparents to be able to reciprocate the help they receive from their grandchildren, according to the researchers.

"Grandparents expect to be able to help their grandchildren, even when their grandchildren are grown," Moorman said.

Among the participants, grandparents who felt independent, gave their grandchildren advice and bought them an occasional gift or paid for lunch had fewer depressive symptoms, whereas grandparents who only received help, without reciprocating had increased depressive symptoms.

The findings also showed it is important for grandchildren to help their grandparents remain independent, and maintain a two-way, supportive relationship, in order to ward off the detrimental effects of aging on the mental and emotional well-being of the older adults.

"All people benefit from feeling needed, worthwhile, and independent. In other words, let granddad write you a check on your birthday, even if he's on Social Security and you've held a real job for years now," Moorman said.

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Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.