Grandparental child care is traditionally considered an altruistic act. Therefore, research on this intergenerational exchange has focused on its effects on the younger generations, e.g., grandchildren’s developmental outcomes, cognitive stimulation, and educational attainment; but also middle generation’s benefits deriving from grandparents’ help. The unpaid child care provided by grandparents, by favouring mothers’ labour force participation, is also likely to produce benefits for the welfare system, especially when the child care services offered by the market are costly and public provision is scarce.
In a paper recently published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family (Arpino and Bordone, 2014), we aimed to answer the question: “is grandparenting also beneficial for the grandparents?”
The existing literature on the effects of grandchild care one health has mainly considered grandparents in skipped generation families, but in most of the cases grandparents are complementary to the parents. We therefore looked at grandparents who babysit their grandchildren. In particular, we focused on the effect of grandchild care on grandparents’ cognitive functioning.
In contexts of population ageing, it is more and more important to understand those factors that can help to age successfully. Closely linked to health, the process of cognitive ageing presents many challenges for modern societies. To address this growing concern, researchers and policymakers are interested in the factors that can halt or slow the decline of cognitive functioning in later life. There is widespread evidence for age differences in cognitive abilities and, within age groups, variations in individual cognitive functioning have usually been explained by socio-demographic inequalities, health risk factors, and modifiable psychological, social, and physical behavioral factors (see Agrigoroaei & Lachman, 2011, for a review). Several authors have argued that being involved in leisure and social activities is stimulating for the brain and helpful in maintaining good cognitive skills (see, e.g., Engelhardt et al., 2010; Hultsch et al., 1999; Scarmeas & Stern, 2003). This line of research can be summarized by the motto “Use it or lose it” (Hultsch et al., 1999): “keeping mentally active will maintain one’s level of cognitive functioning, and possibly even prevent cognitive decline and the onset of dementia” (Salthouse, 2006, p. 70).
Considering grandparenting as a social activity, one may expect it to have a positive effect on grandparents’ cognitive functioning. Yet, by looking at descriptive associations using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, we found that those grandparents looking after grandchildren have lower cognitive scores in various tests than those who do not. In the paper we show that these results derive from a “negative selection” in the provision of grandchild care. In fact, grandparents who look after their grandchildren are on average older, less educated and less engaged in other social activities than the others.
Using an instrumental variable approach, we found that providing child care has a positive effect on 1 of the 4 cognitive tests considered: verbal fluency. For the other cognitive tests (immediate recall and delayed recall), no statistically significant effect was found. Given the same level of engagement, very similar results were found for grandmothers and grandfathers. Contrary to the predominant evidence for negative effects of grandchild care on health outcomes, our results point to a neutral or even positive effect. These findings suggest to include grandparenting among other cognitively stimulating social activities and to consider such benefits when discussing the implications of this important type of non-monetary intergenerational transfer. This paper also points to the importance of considering the role of grandparents (primary versus secondary carers) and of using adequate methods to control for endogeneity when estimating the effect of grandchild care on grandparents’ health.
This post has been jointly written by Valeria Bordone and Bruno Arpino, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pomepu Fabra (UPF) and Co-Director of the Research and Expertise Centre on Survey Methodology (RECSM, UPF).
Agrigoroaei, S., & Lachman, M. E. (2011). Cognitive functioning in midlife and old age: combined effects of psychosocial and behavioral factors. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 66B (S1), i130–i140.
Arpino, B., & Bordone, V. (2014). Does grandparenting pay off? The effect of child care on grandparents’ cognitive functioning. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76 (2), 337–351.
Engelhardt, H., Buber, I., Skirbekk, V., & Prskawetz, A. (2010). Social involvement, behavioural risks and cognitive functioning among older people. Ageing & Society, 30 (5), 779-809.
Hultsch, D., Hertzog, C., Small, B. J., & Dixon, R. A. (1999). Use it or lose it: Engaged lifestyle as a buffer of cognitive decline in aging? Psychololy and Aging, 14 (2), 245-263.
Salthouse, T. (2006). Mental exercise and mental aging: Evaluating the validity of the ‘‘use it or lose it’’ hypothesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1 (1), 68-87.
Scarmeas, N., & Stern, Y. (2003). Cognitive reserve and lifestyle. Journal of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology, 25 (5), 625–663.