Caring for grandchildren can fight off loneliness, study suggests

Grandparents who spend time caring for their grandchildren feel less lonely than if they were caring for their spouses, a study has suggested.

Researchers found that older adults who take care of grandchildren regularly were 60 per cent less likely to feel lonely than those who weren’t caregivers at all.

But providing care to a partner or spouse was associated with higher levels of loneliness, particularly among caregivers looking after spouses with dementia.

The study’s authors, from King’s College London, analysed 28 previous studies involving 191,652 adults over 50 in 21 countries, including the UK.

They sought to understand if there was a link between loneliness and unpaid care. The study was published in the Aging and Mental Health journal.

Grandparents who spent an average of 12 hours per week taking care of their grandchildren were significantly less likely to say they felt lonely.

The research team said the studies “showed that grandchild caregiving was more strongly linked to lower social loneliness than non-kin childcare”.

The authors added that, while grandparents may have to be involved in “time-intensive” activities like bathing and feeding, caregiving for grandchildren may “stimulate older people’s brains” in ways that make them feel less lonely.

It provides older adults with the opportunities to “share their life experiences and feel needed”, as well as making them feel more “integrated in society”.

“Caring is often a labour of love – something that caregivers find deep enjoyment and fulfilment in performing,” the authors explained.

However, providing care to spouses or partners was linked to more loneliness and social isolation, as it may be an “isolating experience when there is an absence of support from other people or organisations”.

A partner who is giving the care may also feel like it is not being reciprocated by the other person, which can lead to “disappointment in social relationships”.

“Moreover, the caregiving older adult may not have a choice to provide care or not, and is confronted with ill health, degeneration and death,” the authors wrote.

“Thus, spousal caregiving may be a preparation to transitioning into widowhood, with widowhood being one of the strongest predictors for loneliness among older adults.”