In a four-year study, which began in 2001 and will conclude in 2005, grandmothers who are the primary caregivers of children reported to Case researchers they had experienced greater stress and more depressive symptoms than non-caregivers.
"These are older women who may have health needs of their own," said Musil. "So caring for a grandchild who may have health problems, developmental challenges or an increased need for care creates additional stress for these grandparents."
The ages of the children may make a difference: younger children are physically demanding but older children often require more emotional and psychological energy.
The study includes comparison groups of grandmothers living in multigenerational homes and non-caregiver grandmothers, and examines the links between the women and their families in terms of overall stress, health and well-being. Its goal is to understand how to help these women stay healthy as the aging population rises in the United States. The other objective is to help identify factors, including skills such as resourcefulness, that may moderate the effects of stress on health regardless of caregiving responsibilities to grandchildren. Adequate emotional and physical support for these grandmothers, say researchers, will make a dramatic difference in their health and ability to provide care for their grandchildren.
Prior studies have shown that more active coping resulted in better health for caregiving grandmothers, and that those who took a planned approach fared much better than those who ignored problems or just reacted to them.
"My hope is that this study will outline the need for additional services, financial assistance and health-related support for grandmothers, which would be tailored to the role they play in the lives of their grandchildren," Musil said.
The research team also concluded that grandmothers were aware of the challenges they faced, expressed interest in health promotion for themselves and their grandchildren and were committed to actively seeking ways to raise their grandchildren more effectively. While facing a unique set of challenges and responsibilities, the grandmothers also acknowledged the obstacles are offset by immeasurable rewards for the entire family.
"The grandmothers told us that no matter how tired, how stressed or how challenged they were with the care of their grandchildren, they would do anything possible to provide the best outcome for these children," said Musil.
Participants also supported the theory that there is strength in numbers, by attributing a better experience as primary caregivers to reliance upon women, such as themselves, for support. Musil, however, pointed out that grandmothers need much more than moral support alone.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4.1 million, or 3.9 percent of all U.S. households include grandparents and grandchildren, and of these, 34 percent or 1.4 million households have no parent present in the home. In nearly 91 percent of these families, the co-resident grandparent is a grandmother, and she, alone or with a spouse, likely heads the household. Grandparents with primary responsibility of children take on this role when parents are unable to do so because of death, drug or alcohol abuse, child neglect, mental or physical problems or incarceration.
About Case Western Reserve University
Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dentistry, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Sciences.