Childcare: Good for Grandparents?

When Dr. Feinian Chen was a child, her parents were sent to northern China to teach, and they left her in Shanghai in the care of her grandparents. She recalls a happy childhood with them but now realizes the added strain rearing a grandchild placed on the couple. An associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Chen is now examining how the extra stress of caring for grandchildren affects the health of older adults. “It’s been a matter of great debate in the U.S. for some time,” she says. “Some studies suggest negative consequences, while others say it has positive effects.”

Chen turned to her native China, where multi-generational families and grandparental involvement in child rearing are common. “Grandparents are sometimes considered the primary caretakers in that culture,” she says, that noting that the strategy frees mothers to pursue more lucrative work outside the home. As part of a five-year National Institutes of Health grant, Chen is analyzing data in the China Health and Nutrition Survey, which has collected information from thousands of families for two decades. “The household surveys allow you to look at families and individuals over time,” she says, “and follow the trajectory of the grandparents’ health as their involvement in childcare changes.”

Her preliminary findings suggest that more childcare leads to more health problems for grandparents. Older adults in the survey reported they had more trouble walking, bending over, and completing other daily activities when caring for youngsters, and there was also a greater instance of chronic disease. Yet, Chen says, the negative link seems to dissipate when other variables are added to the mix, such as the age and number of children cared for and the age and gender of the grandparents. “We need to explore more health measures before drawing conclusions,” she says.

Chen also plans to use the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study funded by the National Institute on Aging, to look at care-giving by older adults in the U.S., with a focus on differences between ethnic groups. “The norm among white, middle-class families is one of non-interference by grandparents,” she says. “But grandmothers play a strong childcare role in African-American families, and Hispanic families are often multi-generational.”

Older adults in a Chinese survey reported they had more trouble walking, bending over, and completing other daily activities when caring for youngsters.

As her parents and in-laws helped look after her 5-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son in recent months, Chen says she saw firsthand the benefits for older adults of caring for their grandchildren, and she expects her research to bear that out. “There’s plenty of stress,” she says, “but there are compensating effects, such as tremendous emotional rewards and bonding.”


Dr. Feinian Chen gets assistance from her father, Chen Cheng, her mother, and her in-laws in caring for her 1-year-old son, Brendan Li.

Chen says she has seen firsthand the benefits of grandparent involvement in raising children.