Age may work in reverse when it comes to raising grandchildren, suggests a University of Florida study that finds younger grandmothers in this role are depressed more often than their older counterparts.
"Unlike older grandparents who are frequently retired, middle-aged grandparents face problems trying to balance their newfound parenting roles with other responsibilities, including the demands of careers and personal interests," said Terry Mills, a UF sociologist who did the study, which appeared in the April issue of the journal Marriage and Family Review.
Mills examined psychological distress in households where grandparents are raising grandchildren, with no biological parent present – so called "skipped-generation families." He used data from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families, a sample representing 430,018 grandmothers between the ages of 32 and 71, which was collected by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute.
The older the grandmothers were, the study found, the less likely they were to experience symptoms of depression, the study found.
"Skipped-generation families," a term coined in 1997, are growing because of a variety of social problems, Mills said. These include an increase in drug abuse, teen pregnancy, divorce, AIDS and the number of parents being imprisoned, he said.
"Some historians might point out that in more traditional agrarian times it was not unusual to have multigenerational families, such as those seen on 'Little House on the Prairie,'" he said. "But 'skipped-generation households' are a 21st-century problem."
U.S. Census data show nearly 8 percent of all children under age 18 (5.5 million) currently live in homes with grandparents, Mills said. Of these, 1.3 million are grandparent-headed households, with roughly half the children in such families under age 6, he said.
In the United States, the largest percentage of children living in a grandparent-headed household are black, Mills said. Other research has found that black grandparents acting as parents are more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed, live below the poverty line and have larger numbers of grandchildren to care for, he said.
"Such grandmothers are not all alike, and Dr. Mills' work shows that younger grandmothers raising grandchildren are more susceptible to depression," said Richard K. Caputo, professor of social policy and research at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
In Mills' study, grandmothers were asked how much of the time during the past month they felt nervous, downhearted or calm and peaceful, as well as how frequently they were happy or could not be cheered up. Each item was measured on a scale that ranged from "all of the time" to "none of the time."
"One reason for a grandmother's emotional distress may be her sense of failure as a parent," Mills said. "She may feel, 'I'm having to do this because my own son or daughter could not care for their child.'"
Many re-enter the parenting role when their parenting skills are rusty, and some find it difficult to resolve the issues of whether they are a parent or a grandparent, he said.
The study found that besides being younger, grandmothers who experienced the most frequent feelings of psychological distress were those who were black and lived in the Midwest, had a family income below the poverty level, were on welfare, did not receive social service payments for child care and had a regular place for child care.
"It's not surprising that having a family income below the poverty level or not receiving welfare payments for child care were associated with more frequent feelings of emotional distress," Mills said. "One serious consequence of becoming a custodial grandparent is a change for the worse in the grandparent's financial status."
"A grandmother may want to work rather than receive welfare, but for those without a husband or partner who could help with child care, it might be difficult to manage," he said.
He suggests that federal policies limiting welfare benefits and providing little assistance to skipped-generation grandparents should be revised to contribute more support for the valuable role they play.
"I don't think society is aware of the public service these grandparents provide in struggling to keep families intact instead of just shipping the children off to foster care," he said. "Yet foster parents get a lot more money and support in terms of social assistance than these kinds of caregivers do."