Healthy Benefits of Our Legacy Connections—Grandparents

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Dr. Nina Radcliff

Holidays present great times of connecting with family and friends. And studies show that these times are particularly important to our health and wellbeing as we share holiday traditions we have treasured for generations. One compelling avenue of findings highlights, too, as life expectancy rises throughout our nation, families are for the first time in our history, able to enjoy their family bonds with grandparents well into adulthood. This new fact has given researchers the opportunity to explore relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, and the results have shown significant health benefits for both generations. 

And while becoming a grandparent is out of your control, according to science, those who enjoy the gift of the grandparent and grandchildren connection – have been given the special opportunity to improve their own mental health and overall wellbeing by developing a strong, supportive relationship.

At this time of the year, there are special memories and traditions to be shared as many of us unfold the special music, meals, gifts, experiences and memories that we bring forward from our rich remembrances of holidays past. The grandparent and grandchild legacy connection does more than make everyone smile— facts are it helps everyone in the relationship stay sharper, be more active, and live healthier, longer. As well, embracing the importance of family connection may also help transform holiday events into celebrations, as family members come to understand the many benefits of getting together, whether in person, on the phone or through livestream apps. 

The “Grand” Relationship of Family Connection is Important: 

Grandparents are by definition the parents of a person’s father or mother. The term is a biological one, but for many, “grandparenting” goes beyond what our words can capture – and are a reflection of our family bonds. There can be a tremendous, (many experts agree a vital) emotional and spiritual bond or connection—and a richness that the grandparent gifts upon the grandchild, and vice versa.

Close grandparent-grandchild relationships are often a marker of strong family ties overall, but these intergenerational bonds also come with their own distinctive benefits. And, today, as people are living longer, and family sizes have decreased, these bonds are becoming even more treasured.

The average life expectancy has leaped to almost 80 years, up from less than 50 years of age in the 1900s. This has allowed for millions of grandparents and grandchildren to enjoy a sustained, influential, intergenerational relationship from birth well into childhood to adolescence, and even adulthood—and for some, becoming great grandparents. 

While grandparents usually have the benefit of interacting with grandkids on a level that is once removed from the day-to-day responsibilities of parents, in a shift driven partly by culture and by the economy, the number of grandparents living with (or close to) their grandchildren have been up sharply, increasing by about a third over the past generation. And, of note, there are about 80 million American grandparents, which is also more than one-third of the adult population. With this, our nation’s families have been experiencing more of “kinship” care in support of home relationships.

Whatever your family makeup is currently, facts are that the connection of grandparents and grandchildren brings many healthy rewards along with the fulfillment of a sense of security, developing deeper relationships and family bonds, together. 

Many Benefits For Grandparents and Grandkids: 

For grandparents, relationships with grandchildren provide connection with a much younger generation, exposing them to different ideas, which might otherwise be limited. 

And for grandkids, grandparents have a wealth of experience, offering life wisdoms that they can put into practice. There is value in the kinship sharing of information. And too, the grandparent relationship has been found to offer a first-hand historical perspective that enriches the grandchild’s life and understanding of the past and family.

Research has shown links between strong grandparent-grandchild bonds and adjustment in life situations as well as pro-social behavior among children — finding that close grandparent-grandchild relationships are associated with benefits including fewer emotional and behavioral problems and fewer difficulties with peers. These “grand” relationships also helped to reduce the adverse impacts of experiences such as parent breakups, loss of family or being bullied.

In one significant study by Boston College researchers, they looked at data collected over a 19-year period, finding that emotionally close ties between grandparents and adult grandchildren reduced depressive symptoms in both groups. As well, there are a handful of studies showing that teens who are close to their grandparents generally have higher academic success, greater self-confidence, and higher rates of competence and maturity. 

And, too, there are a number of benefits that cannot be measured. Some include: having an adult who provides companionship; a window (or scribe) into their parent’s childhood; a role model; bountiful patience (and giggles); life lessons and an understanding of family traditions; and unconditional love. And too, experts share that grandparents have a great calming effect on their grandchildren as they interact.

When a child knows they have someone they can trust and is always on their side, it is a powerful security blanket and an emotional treasure. 

Add to this, experts are quick to point out that grandparents often provide advice and emotional support to parents, which can translate into decreased parental stress that benefits children along with the overall family structure. 

Notable Benefits Grandparents Receive from Healthy Relationships with their Grandchildren

  • Decreases risk of Alzheimer’s dementia In a study by Australian researchers, grandmothers who spent a moderate amount of time caring for their grandkids scored higher on memory and other mental tests. This finding is likely because our brain is similar to a muscle in that when we use it, it becomes stronger. And, continued mental stimulation and social interaction are powerful tools to stave off dementia.  
  • Greater physical activity In an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) report from 2011, 58% of grandparents reported that they engaged in physical activities with their grandchildren. The type of physical activity can depend upon the age group. For example, with younger grandchildren this may mean taking them for a walk in their stroller or keeping up after them as they start crawling and walking. Older grandchildren are great partners to go hiking with or on a long walk; golfing, playing tennis, basketball, or another spork together; martial arts; or doing yoga. 
  • Lower risk of depression A study by Boston College researchers in 2016 found that when grandparents had emotionally close ties (known as affinity) to their grandchildren, both groups experienced reduced depressive symptoms. Symptoms of depression follow a “U-shaped” pattern meaning it is greatest in young adulthood, decreased across middle adulthood, and increased again in older adulthood. Thus, the intergenerational bond uniquely benefits those at greatest risk. 
  • Longer lifespan According to a 2016 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, grandparents who babysat their grandchildren had a 37% lower mortality risk (likelihood of dying) five years after the study began compared to adults the same age with no caring responsibility. And, if you’re not a grandparent, don’t worry! The researchers also found a similar positive effect in participants who help support adult children and others in their social network. While the reason for this is not clear, the study’s authors hypothesized that spending time with grandchildren (or others who they support) is a good way for older adults to have a sense of purpose, while remaining both physically and mentally active. 

Parents need to be aware of their role as gatekeepers in the relationship between their children and their parents – and should encourage healthy relationships. Grandparents hold great potential of being an important resource in children’s lives and community – and vice versa. 

And while geographical distance between grandparents and their grandchildren may be a key influencing factor on the quality of your relationship, today, in our communication age, technological advancements have made it possible to foster a strong, loving relationship over phones, texts, instant images, live stream as well as connection face-to-face long distance. 

Today’s American grandparents have generally adopted the digital age. More than 75% of grandparents use the internet and nearly half use social media, regularly. We are in an exciting age as today’s grandparents don’t just sit in rocking chairs with blankets on their laps; they’re active (68% of grandparents exercise, play sports, or dance).  

It is gift to everyone as we nurture healthy closeness in our families. Enjoy – and may your holiday provide precious memories and times together for every generation!! 

Image by 123RF

Author Profile

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.