This morning, I was scanning caregiving news online and came across an article titled “The Grandma Effect: A Little Caregiving Sharpens the Brain – A Lot Dulls It.” It turns out that scientists in Australia have shown that grandmothers caring for grandchildren one day a week scored excellent results on cognitive tests. But another group of grannies who cared for their grandchildren five days per week had much lower scores for cognition, memory and mood. It seems that as we age, high levels of caregiving are actually bad for our health.
That got me thinking. Legions of middle aged North Americans are engaged in caring for very elderly parents, many who suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Lots of parents of adult children with disabilities are struggling to cope with the effects of their own ageing, as they continue to give high levels of care 24/7 to their dependent offspring.
So, what’s a mother (or father) to do? Well, one place to start is with forging an agreement about the ethics of caregiving and ageing. How can we begin to think about what is fair to expect of older people caring for grandchildren, their very elderly parents or their adult children with disabilities? The Australian study cited above gives us evidence that too much caregiving in older adults is damaging to cognitive function. In my book, “The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned From a Lifetime of Caregiving”, I argue that we should expect from people what nature intended – that is, much higher levels of caregiving in the childbearing years and easing off later on. Grandmothers who have raised their own children should not be coerced into giving levels of care that would be expected of younger parents. I call this the ‘natural trajectory of care’ and I argue that programs and services should be accessible to caregivers based on this principle. A mother of an adult child with severe disabilities should expect to have a ‘retirement’ from her caregiving responsibilities. There should be a public recognition that it is improper for her at age 80, to change her 55 year old son’s soiled briefs.
Of course, there are many exceptions to every rule and there will be older adults who choose to give high levels of care. They will be happy, fully functioning and thriving in that role. But if this Australian study has a broad, international application, we can assume that most older people want some caregiving responsibilities, but they want to take a smaller role. It’s only natural.
The public expectation that families will ‘take care of their own no matter what’ should be recognised as dangerous to the health and wellbeing of all concerned. Care is better when it is shared. Caregivers are better when they are appreciated and supported. And certainly, no one should have ‘so many children that they don’t know what to do.”
The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I’ve Learned From a Lifetime of Caregiving (The House of Anansi Press) is available now everywhere in Canada and for pre-order in the USA from online booksellers.