When their first grandchild was born in 2007, David and Denise Wilson were about as well-prepared to help with care-giving as they could be. They raised two children of their own, and Denise has run a child day-care business from their home in Indianapolis since the early 1980s.
Three more grandkids have come along since then (now ages 12, 6, and 4). The Wilsons have helped their two daughters, who live a few miles away from them, raise all four children.
It’s a role that roughly half of all grandparents play in the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center survey. About three-fourths of grandparents who provide childcare do so only occasionally. Twenty-two percent provide it regularly, which is true of the Wilsons.
Locally, about 80 percent of “older adults” (defined as age 55+) provide care for either a friend or loved one, according to the State of Aging in Central Indiana report published earlier this year by the Central Indiana Senior Fund.
About 25 percent of older adults in Central Indiana report feeling “physically, emotionally or financially burdened by caregiving responsibilities.” The specific situations and challenges of grandparents who provide childcare vary widely, of course. But there are some common themes.
For example, trends in technology—like the role that television, cellphones and video games play in many children’s lives—can be difficult for grandparents to navigate.
Marsha Ford, a single grandmother in Indianapolis who regularly cares for her grandkids, sometimes sees the effects of easy access to so much media. “When they have bad dreams, I ask what they watched the night before,” she says. Like the Wilsons, Ford has two children and four grandchildren—ages 10 and five, and twins who are about 20 months.
Boundary-setting is another common challenge. Grandparents who provide day care have to balance the desire to make children happy with the obligation to provide quality care. That means not always giving in.
“They know how much you love them,” David says, “and they will take of advantage of it if you let them. They will take it to the limit.”
Establishing clear expectations with the parents is also vital. There is the potential for tension over issues like how to discipline the children and how the grandparents can maintain reasonable limits on the caregiving.
Since both the Wilsons and Ford also care for an aging parent, honoring those limits is especially important. Denise says their daughters have been “very respectful” of the fact that “we need our alone time, too.” Ford says that, especially during the pandemic, she has been “always available” to help with the kids but never feels taken advantage of.
Those kinds of challenges are relatively minor, though, compared with the potential joys and benefits of the arrangement.
At its best, it’s a win-win-win. Children benefit from the time and attention their grandparents give them. Parents benefit from having a reliable—and reliably loving—childcare provider. And grandparents benefit in all kinds of ways.
About 40 percent of older adults live alone, according to the State of Aging in Central Indiana Report. Being a childcare provider can add a sense of meaning and connectedness at a stage of life when people are especially vulnerable to isolation and loneliness.
That’s true for Ford, who lost many of her church-related opportunities for social interaction during the pandemic. Like the Wilsons, she does not charge for her services. Even so, she feels well-compensated for the work.
“My love language is the gift of serving—I believe God put me here to be of service,” she says. Caring for her grandkids “gives me purpose to get up and get going. I do not feel socially isolated. It keeps me on schedule and keeps me fit.”
Both the Wilsons and Ford note that there are plenty of other perks, too, like free and easily available help with technology. “There’s a shirt—‘I’m grandma’s tech support,’” Denise notes with a smile. And the bustle that comes with having young children around helps the Wilsons savor the quiet times together all the more.
“During the summer, when we have them for a week straight, we realize how noisy it is with TV, questions, talking,” Denise says. “We appreciate when we can hear the birds sing again.”