Grandparenting in the time of COVID-19:
Results from a national survey of families with young children
BY JAIA LENT
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the winter of 2020, few of us know what to expect in the months that would follow. Looking back to that time, the millions of Americans rushing to lay in supplies of toilet paper seems trivial in contrast to the global toll on human lives that the pandemic has taken. Virtually nowhere on the planet has gone unaffected by COVID-19, and at the time of this writing, with new strains of the coronavirus showing high infection rates, it is still uncertain when the pandemic will end. Whether considering the impact on individuals, communities, or whole countries, there is no doubt that we are living through a historic moment in human history. The role of grandparents are playing in these difficult times is a significant part of the story.
In the United States, the impact of the pandemic on families with young children has been extensive. Since April 2020 a team of researchers from the University of Oregon has been conducting an ongoing national survey of households with a child age 5 and under-known as RAPID which reveals many facts that are cause for concern. For example, parents and caregivers report significant increases in stress, loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared to before the pandemic, and also report increases in children’s emotional distress.
Although there has been some improvement in the parent, caregiver, and child well-being in recent months compared to a year ago, rates of distress are still elevated. For many families, these issues are tied to difficulties making ends meet financially. At the height of the pandemic, in summer and fall of 2020, more than one in three families with young children couldn’t afford food, housing, and/or utilities, and these numbers were even higher for some subgroups (single-parent households, households with a child with special needs, and households with Black and Latinx family members.). One in four families is still experiencing these material hardships. Families have badly needed pandemic financial relief to pay for basic necessities, and many have accrued significant new debt due to being out of work. In July the Child Tax Credit, designed to address some of these issues, started to be distributed to millions of families, and our survey will help to determine if it helps to address the financial (and related emotional) challenges families are facing.
One topic that has gotten lost in the shuffle all too frequently during the pandemic is the way in which grandparents’ roles have been affected. The RAPID study explored this question and found that many changes have occurred. Before the pandemic, many grandparents played significant roles in the lives of their children and grandchildren, helping out in numerous ways, including providing child care, assisting with children’s learning, and simply playing with and enjoying their grandchildren. Grandparents also are a key part of the fabric of many families, helping out with chores, providing emotional support to both parents and children, and in some instances helping out financially.
These roles have changed since before the pandemic. Grandparents have decreased their roles, providing care and educational support, playing with grandchildren, and helping with household chores. Interestingly, play is the area that was most negatively impacted. In contrast, grandparents have provided increased emotional support to families, and (to a lesser extent) financial support.
The areas in which roles decreased are undoubtedly due in large part to the challenges that were imposed in grandparents being able to spend time with their grandchildren during the pandemic as a result of social distancing, and concerns about older adults contracting COVID-19. The study shows 67% of families say that grandparents’ in-person time with grandchildren decreased. However, it is quite noteworthy that our data show these decreases in grandparent in-person support were counterbalanced by increased emotional and financial support. 41% of families reported that there was an increase in the amount of remote contact that grandparents had with grandchildren (including video, phone, and social media contact).
Grandparents have also played a key role in supporting children’s education as schools went to remote or only in-person part-time. Next to parents grandparents were the most likely of any other group (other relatives, friends, neighbors, or other children) to help fill gaps left in children’s education as parents and caregivers struggled to balance work and supporting their young child’s learning. In fact, 38% of parents reported that a grandparent was still helping out in this area.
As the nation enters the fall season, one thing for certain may be that the pandemic will bring more uncertainty. As a grandparent, you play a critical role and can continue to help address the challenges that come with uncertainty and change. Here are a few ways you can offer to support and connect with your grandchildren:
- Have a weekly zoom or facetime call with your grandchildren to help out with homework or play an online game.
- Host the grandchildren in your backyard or on your block
- Offer to help pay for child care, groceries, or school supplies
- Call your grandchildren’s parents, ask them how they are doing, and just listen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – JAIA LENT
Jaia Peterson Lent is Deputy Executive Director of Generations United, a national organization dedicated to improving lives. Home to the National Center on Grandfamilies, Generations United is a leading voice for issues affecting families headed by grandparents or other relatives.
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