Grandparents often provide “supplementary care” to their grandchildren. That is, grandparents care for their grandchildren when parents are not able to, or other forms of care are not available. Indeed, there has been a growing demand on grandparents to care for their grandchildren as life expectancy increases and the role of women in the workforce changes. For example, in the USA, almost 50% of grandparents provide some degree of childcare to their grandchildren.

In view of this, there has been a growing research interest in the broader implications of providing supplementary care for grandparents. For example, previous research has found that providing supplementary care to grandchildren negatively impacted the number of social activities grandparents undertook. On the other hand, a separate study showed that providing grandchild care presents an opportunity to establish and maintain links with others. My colleagues and I were interested in exploring the implications of providing grandchild care on objective and subjective measures of social relations. Specifically, we wanted to know whether there are associations between providing grandchild care on feelings of loneliness and social isolation, or one’s social network size. The relevance of this is that loneliness and social isolation have been linked to poor health outcomes. Understanding the links between these factors can also provide insight into the positive and protective lifestyle factors that can contribute to active and successful ageing.

We used data drawn from a representative sample of community-dwelling individuals aged 40 and older and living in Germany to answer our research question. We found that providing grandchild care is associated with reduced feelings of loneliness and social isolation, as well as an increased network size. For example, those providing grandchild care were, on average, in regular contact with 6 people important to them. Those who did not provide grandchild care were in regular with few people important to them (4-5 on average). 

Previous studies have used the theories of role enhancement and role strain to explain the health and psychological implications of providing grandchild care. Both theories are based on the idea that individuals occupy multiple social roles that are associated with rewards and demands. Role enhancement theory posits that occupying many roles can enhance one’s personality and contribute to positive self-esteem, which can be beneficial to the health of individuals. Role strain posits that occupying multiple social roles can be overwhelming and lead to juggling conflicting obligations.

The results of our study suggest that role enhancement theory can be applied to supplementary grandchild care. By providing supplementary care, grandparents are enabling families to balance work and family life, which may boost their self-esteem. Providing grandchild care may also facilitate positive relationships between grandparents and their children, as well as grandchildren. Supplementary grandchild care may also present opportunities to establish relationships with other parents and grandparents.

Our findings therefore build on current research that considers the impact of providing grandchild care on health, wellbeing and social relations for the growing number of grandparents who provide supplementary care to their grandchildren. Actively engaging in the grandparental role through the provision of supplementary care can positively shape the social aspects of a grandparent’s life.