I was blessed to have both my grandmothers in my life until I was 40 years old. Although we lived several hundred miles apart, I spoke to them by phone every week with news about my life. Every Thanksgiving they flew down for our family dinner and were thrilled when they became great-grandmothers after my daughter and son were born. Both my daughter and son are now in their forties and my two grandmothers have passed away, but my two children call their 94-year old grandmother (my mother) weekly to share stories about their daily lives. And so the cycle continues from generation to generation.
Grandparents and their grown-up grandchildren play important roles in each other’s mental health, according to a two-decade study at Boston College. Researchers found that 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.
My experience of having both my grandmothers until I was 40 years old is historically really new, Moorman said. Now it is much more common for 40-year olds to have one or more grandparents living.
The study asked participants to fill 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 results showed that besides the positive mental-health effects of having an emotionally close relationship, it’s important for grandparents to be able to reciprocate the help they receive from their grandchildren.
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’s 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. My 94-year old mother still remembers to send my adult children a card and check on their birthdays and enjoys their calls and letters of appreciation for her support.
I’m hoping that the grandmas of my generation will be blessed to live long enough to see their grandchildren become parents and be able to help them and their families with emotional and financial support.
Note: The information in this post is a summary of an article by Bahar Gholipour, staff writer for Live Science.