Ageism in the Family
Definition and Overview
Ageism in the family generally refers to negative ageism (negative attitudes toward older adults; Levy and Macdonald 2016) that is manifested in the family. Examples include when family members perceive older relatives as a burden or engage in elder abuse. Attitudes toward older relatives are shaped by their roles such as parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents as well as whether the intergenerational interactions tend to be positive or negative (Levy 2016). The role of grandparents in the family is increasingly being considered a positive role as grandparents can be important contributors to childcare in families in contemporary societies. For example, studies of countries in Western Europe find over 50% of grandparents report providing childcare for their grandchildren in some capacity (Bordone et al. 2017), and 24% report caregiving for their grandchildren on a consistent part-time basis (DiGessa et al. 2016). Being family-oriented is one of the most prominent positive age stereotypes (Levy et al. 2004).
Key Research Findings
Grandparenthood represents a new role in a family, and it can benefit older adults. There may be some validity to the saying that grandchildren keep us young. When their first grandchild is born, grandparents typically report feeling older than their chronological age, but over time report feeling younger than it. Conversely, older adults without grandchildren tend to feel older as they age (Kaufman and Elder 2003). When interactions are generally positive, grandchildren may provide grandparents with more opportunities for social engagement and more reasons to maintain positive attitudes toward their own aging. They may reap the biggest benefits when they interact with their grandchildren on a regular basis in a positive way.
Indeed, providing regular care for grandchildren may delay their adaptation of an older self-image and enable them to maintain positive attitudes toward their own aging, ultimately improving their health and longevity (Levy 2009). Compared to their peers who do not provide care, grandparents who provide part-time childcare for their grandchildren show better physical health (Chen et al. 2015), fewer depressive symptoms (Grundy et al. 2012), and better cognitive functioning (Burn and Szoeke 2015). At the same time, being a grandparent who helps the family by providing childcare challenges the negative societal view of older adults as a burden. Many grandparents provide childcare for free and to their family who are experiencing financial problems; thus, these grandparents are seen as valued helpers.
Caregiving roles are often gendered. As such, grandmothers are more likely to provide regular care than grandfathers (Zamberletti et al. 2018). When they provide care together, grandmothers are more often responsible for caregiving whereas grandfathers more often engage in play (Horsfall and Dempsey 2015). Grandmothers are more likely to experience significant health benefits from caregiving (DiGessa et al. 2016).
Positive effects of caregiving for grandchildren may diminish, and the likelihood of experiencing negative effects may increase at some point such as when the hours are too burdensome or intergenerational interactions are negative. Compared to peers who provide part-time care, custodial grandparents report significantly worse physical health (Chen et al. 2015) and cognitive functioning (Burn and Szoeke 2015). This may be mediated by caregiving burden, which is the most common complaint reported by grandparents providing more than 15 h of childcare weekly (Noriega et al. 2016). Excessive burden may decrease self-efficacy, accelerate adaptation of an older self-image, and negatively impact health (Levy 2009). The strain may also contribute to strained family interactions and negative views of the older adult in the family (Levy 2016).
To date, research on grandparent caregivers has relied on national health surveys that assess health but lack psychological measures that can provide a fuller understanding of the role of caregiving on well-being and self-perceptions. In light of ageism worldwide, it is necessary for future research to understand potential psychological mediators of the relationship between care for grandchildren and their health as well as perceptions of older adults as well as to examine cross-cultural similarities and differences in the expectation of caregiving, perception of burden, and health effects.
Some grandparents are important contributors to childcare in their families. This role is not only benefits families by filling the need for childcare for little or no cost, but may also be beneficial to the grandparents, themselves.