Grand Caregivers

By Paul Wynn


With the increase in multi-generational families, grandchildren are playing a bigger role in caring for grandma and grandpa.

For more than 12 years, Helen “Pixie” Hicks has been lovingly cared for by her 41-year old grandson, David Dunham, who balances the demands of caregiving with his full-time position at the University of California at Berkeley. Dunham is the primary caregiver to Grandma Helen because the family cannot afford round-the-clock care; but he receives help from his wife, who has a full-time teaching position, and his mother who is disabled and provides as much support as she can.

“Managing the stress related to daily caregiving is very challenging, but there are great rewards that come with the responsibility, such as returning the love and care that my grandmother has unconditionally and generously given to me all my life,” says Dunham.

Dunham is one of a small, but growing group of grandchildren providing care to grandparents. An estimated 5.3 million, or eight percent of all caregivers over the age of 18, are grandchildren, according to a joint report by the National Alliance for Caregiving, AARP and MetLife Foundation. That number is estimated to be even higher since there are many individuals under age 18 who also provide care, says Nancy Orel, PhD, director of the gerontology program at Bowling Green State University, who has studied the grandchildren-as-caregiver trend.

She adds that close to four percent of families are multi-generational so there’s a strong likelihood that grandchildren are providing some assistance or care if the grandparent is over the age of 70. “Multi-generational households will increase further as the population ages and young adults move home, so that will mean more grandchildren will be involved in caregiving.”

The Olson’s are one of those multi-generational families. When Samantha Olson was 8 years old, her grandparents moved in next door so the family could care for her grandfather who has multiple sclerosis. Now in her early 20s and attending law school, Olson recognizes how lucky she was to grow up helping her grandfather. “As a family, we have been able to work together as a team to provide most of his care and that has meant a lot to all of us.”

Caregiving at all ages

The way in which grandchildren care for grandparents varies considerably based on age and ability – and whether a parent is involved in taking care of grandma and grandpa. Older grandchildren may serve as primary caregivers, and are sometimes forced to leave their jobs and postpone personal and professional ambitions. Activities can range from everyday tasks like cooking meals and taking them to doctor appointments to more strenuous duties such as bathing and feeding loved ones.

Even younger grandchildren can play an important role in caring for a grandparent. Their role is frequently less defined than young and older adults, but kids and teenagers can make ordinary tasks an important part of the overall care.

“Getting an occasional glass of water for grandma is not necessarily a caregiving task; but if a grandchild is asked to provide grandma with water on an hourly basis so she doesn’t become dehydrated, then that becomes a caregiving job,” explains Orel. “Some grandchildren take on a lot of responsibility.”

She remembers meeting one young grandchild who was the only one in her family who could understand grandma because her speech was extremely unclear. Orel says, “In caregiving textbooks, that might not be listed as a caregiving task, but she became the interpreter and filled a very important need for grandma – and the entire family.”

Caring for a grandparent often puts grandchildren in a challenging situation – resulting in role conflicts and potential changes in the dynamic of the grandchild-grandparent relationship. Younger grandchildren still in school can be affected in different ways through missed classes, handing in late homework or not having time to do after-school activities.

Thirteen-year old Synott Embry-Salas understands what it means to be a caregiver at a young age. His grandmother, Libby Embry, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease about four years ago. The two have always been very close and live together on the weekends in Abilene, Texas. Even though Libby’s condition is stable, Synott plays a big role in reminding his sixty-four –year-old nana to take her medications.

He keeps her active by going to movies and travelling the country with her. Last year, the two visited Washington, D.C. to attend an advocacy forum where Libby met members of Congress; and Synott has participated in a summer camp for children affected by Alzheimer’s disease that he found to be really helpful. “Being a caregiver is one of my jobs, but I’m always her grandson first,” he says.

Finding balance

No matter what the age or circumstance, providing care to grandparents is extremely challenging and disruptive to the lives of grandchildren. Sara Gerilee Fischer, 24, of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, knows the challenges first-hand. Fischer, who lost both parents as a teenager, developed a close bond with her grandmother, Lois Vinter. “She was my best friend – we talked several times each day – and when she got sick with cancer, I knew that I would take care of her.”

Rather than arrange for her to live in a nursing home, Sara moved her “Mom Mom” into her house. It was a long 12 months, and there were times when Sara had to leave the house to clear her mind because it was so overwhelming, but she would do it all over again. “My Mom Mom took care of people all of her life. She deserved to be taken care of by family during her last few weeks.” 

“When grandchildren face the possibility of being a caregiver, there are several guiding principles that can assist with the new role,” says Ruth Drew, MSW, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association. Drew, who has a great deal of experience working with caregivers, says that it’s vital for grandchildren to find ways to connect with their grandparent, but also to find ways to relieve stress.

“Not every grandchild is going to be a full-blown caregiver, but sitting down and holding hands and having a conversation can be very therapeutic for a grandparent,” explains Drew.

Many national and local health agencies provide a variety of resources for caregivers. For instance, the U.S. Administration on Aging provides an online locator to find assistance with meals, health insurance and local transportation.

“It’s important to find a support system,” says Dunham. “Grandchildren should be open to the experience of caregiving for their loved ones, but should find as many resources as possible from their community of family, friends and fellow caregivers,” he says. “Find a way to continue to have balance in life and do things that you most love and cherish, even if you do them less often.”

Paul Wynn writes about health-related topics for many national magazines. He currently resides in Garrison, NY.

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