‘I just can’t do it anymore doctor. I’m a wreck.” Mary is a widowed 72-year-old lady who has a bad back, sore wrists and shoulders and, as a result, has difficulty sleeping. Sometimes even dressing herself can be a struggle. These symptoms make her own life difficult but her main concern is not for herself. She’s afraid she’ll no longer be able to care for her two preschool grandsons.
She’s helping out her daughter who has had to return to work to help make ends meet now that her husband’s salary has been cut. Her daughter drops the two boys round on her way to work, five days a week, and picks them up on her return.
It’s a long day, but Mary is glad to be able to help out. She loves the kids and enjoys spending time with them but the physical and emotional demands of feeding, changing, cleaning up and entertaining them is taking its toll. Her arthritis pains are worse,she finds it difficult to make time to visit her friends, exercise or attend her hospital clinic appointments.
This is an extract from a recent blog by Galway consultant rheumatologist, Dr Ronan Kavanagh (ronankavanagh.ie.), titled 'Granny Burnout: A new Occupational Disorder?'. In it he suggests this is by no means an isolated incident.
It seems grannies and granddads are increasingly being called upon to plug the gap to enable former stay-at-home partners to go to work or to pick up the slack when working parents can no longer afford professional childcare.
As the blog’s title suggests, the condition has yet to be formally described in the medical literature. But that may be because other specialists have yet to make the same connection that Dr Kavanagh has.
It may well be that cardiologists are seeing grandparents whose previously stable angina is now causing symptoms after taking on childminding duties, or that older patients of gastroenterologists with inflammatory bowel disease have been experiencing flare-ups in similar circumstances to Mary.
With some 20 per cent of Irish grandparents living in the same house as their grandchildren and about a third residing within 25 kilometres of them, it makes sense that they are increasingly being called upon to lend a hand.
And given what we know of the effect stress has on chronic illness and even the simple biological fact that in general older people have less stamina, there is an intuitive sense to the concept of ‘Granny Burnout’.
There are several “models” for burnout. The burnout-engagement model defines engagement as a positive work-related state of mind characterised by vigour and dedication.
However, if job demands exceed an individual’s ability to compensate, then disengagement, reduced performance and exhaustion set in, leading to possible long-term health problems. Using this model, an Austrian study found that older workers experienced more psychosomatic complaints than younger employees.
Lack of evidence
A 2007 US study found no evidence to suggest that caring for grandchildren has dramatic and widespread negative effects on grandparents' health or health behaviour. The researchers reported limited evidence that grandmothers caring for grandchildren in skipped-generation households (where parents are absent) were more likely to experience negative changes in health behaviour, depression and self-rated health.
But they also found some evidence of health benefits for grandmothers who babysat. The study showed that grannies who began providing 200-500 hours of babysitting per year were more likely to exercise and reported fewer functional limitations, and grandmothers who continued this level of care reported a decline in depressive symptoms.
Whether granny burnout is confirmed in the future or if some other entity such as granddad overuse syndrome (GUS) emerges as a result of further research, there is no doubt that a newly shaped nuclear family is emerging.
The health consequences for grandparents of the new economic reality may be yet another legacy bequeathed on us by the regrettable decisions of bankers and politicians.