Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: How grandchildren can participate in caregiving

Let me tell you a story. Alyssa* was 25 years old when her grandmother, Margie, started to need some help with household tasks. Over the next couple of years, Margie’s needs increased and Alyssa’s mother and her siblings spent more time providing care to help their mother decide whether to stay in her home or to move to a retirement residence.

It wasn’t always an easy time for Alyssa’s family, and she found she was able to provide assistance in a number of ways. She had always been close to her grandmother, so was happy to spend more time with her when the family was travelling or concerned about her wellbeing. Once, while her grandmother was recuperating from a fall, Alyssa even moved into her grandmother’s extra bedroom for a couple of weeks to be there during the night if help was needed.

Alyssa found she was also able to be emotionally supportive to her mother during her caregiving journey. Sometimes her mother and her aunts and uncles had differences of opinion, and her mother found these disagreements very stressful. Alyssa became a sounding board for her, and also brought up concerns about her mother’s health and wellbeing when she noticed she was exhausted and had “pressed pause” on the rest of her life in order to juggle work and caregiving. Alyssa encouraged her mother to go to the cottage and to go out with friends in order to recharge, and her mother was grateful for the support. She felt that Alyssa was a big factor in helping her through the toughest part of those caregiving years.

Grandchildren: A unique perspective

Many people think of caregiving as something they might do for a parent or a spouse, but may not necessarily think of themselves as caregiving for their grandparent. Yet, like Alyssa, they may have important roles to play when their grandparent’s needs increase.

One reason grandchildren may be very helpful with caregiving lies in the fact they are a generation removed. This generational distance usually means less-complicated relationships between grandparents and grandchildren than between parents and children. Those complicated relationships between parents and children don’t go away with time—instead, they often boil up again during caregiving, just like they do among siblings caregiving for parents.

Grandchildren’s less-complicated relationships with grandparents and their “one generation removed” view on their parents and aunts and uncles’ relationships gives them a unique perspective that is frequently helpful when care is needed.

Communication advice for caregiving grandchildren

For grandchildren, the trick is how they might share their perspective on the situation in a way that everyone can hear it. Using phrases such as, “I’ve noticed something about Grampa that I am wondering might be helpful as you and your sister talk with him about his care…”, or “I had a thought about something related to Grandma that I’m wondering if I can share…”, can open up conversations. Staying away from language that sounds accusatory or blaming will help parents be more receptive to this input.

How grandchildren can help

Though one generation removed, grandchildren can certainly provide some of the needed care for a grandparent, and they don’t have to be adults to participate in the tasks of caregiving either! For example, a teenager can sit and play cards or watch a TV show with a grandparent to provide companionship, giving their parents a much-needed break. Or, they can help with errands around their grandparents’ house or their own parents’ house, helping to ease the burden on the rest of the family providing caregiving support. Staying overnight with a grandparent while their caregiving parents are travelling can also help give everyone peace of mind.

Finally, as Alyssa did, grandchildren may be able to see when their parent really needs a break and time away from caregiving. This type of feedback provided in a gentle way may help a parent realize they are overextending and need to focus a bit more on their own self-care in order to go the distance as a caregiver.

Like parenting, caregiving requires a village. Grandchildren are an integral part of that village. By encouraging and supporting their role in caregiving, everyone can benefit!

*Name changed to respect privacy