How to make babysitting more enjoyable for grandparents

Babysittinggrandparents_largeIt’s no secret that grandparents love to dote on their grandchildren, so when presented with an opportunity to babysit, most grandparents are happy to oblige. But now there may be even more reason for grandparents to want to babysit: A 2017 study found that grandparents who babysit may be happier and live longer.

The widely publicized Berlin Aging Study included about 500 adults from a database of people 70 or older living in the former West Berlin. The study cited several explanations for why babysitting may extend an older person’s life, including: 

  • staying physically active, mentally sharp and socially engaged
  • providing a sense of purpose, which leads to happiness
  • preventing depression that can stem from social isolation 
While this is good news for parents who might need a time out from parenthood and grandparents who are more than happy to lend a hand, it’s important to find the right balance. If a grandparent feels overwhelmed or tired from doing too much caretaking or even guilty for saying no, the stress can negatively affect their health. 

Lauren Southerland, MD, who specializes in geriatric emergency medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, answered our questions about how to make babysitting a positive experience for all:

What are some meaningful activities that grandparents and grandchildren can do together?

Anytime you can share a talent or a hobby with a child that leaves the child with a new understanding or appreciation is valuable. So a person who loves gardening or the outdoors should share that hobby, while someone who enjoys crafts, woodworking or literature should share that joy. 

Other activities to consider: bake together, take a nature walk, play a card game, read books together, create a family tree, start a journal in which you write letters to each other, or even play a video game.

Are there activities that grandparents should avoid?

It can sometimes be difficult for older adults to supervise rough play or sports if their health isn’t up to it. For example, if you haven’t gone bowling in 20 years, consider observing or starting with the lightest ball to avoid throwing your back out or slipping and falling. Similarly, ice skating and winter sports may be fun, but place an older adult at higher risk for falls and injuries. 

Is there a time when too much caretaking is bad for the grandparent?

If a grandparent is feeling too exhausted to care for themself at the end of the day, or if the child has medical or psychological needs that are too difficult for the grandparent to handle, what should be a joy can become a difficult chore and cause increased stress and health problems. Also, children and families must be aware that some older adults may have limitations and risks. It may be good to sit down as a family and put in place strategies to ensure that this is a good situation for everyone. For example, a child may not be used to much structure at home, but may have to learn to pick up all toys and put them away at the end of the day so that the grandparents don’t trip and fall. 

What else should you keep in mind when asking grandparents to babysit?

Older adult sleeping patterns may differ from younger adults, so a discussion on hours of care and timing may help. Some older adults don’t sleep well at night and may benefit from quiet time or a nap during the afternoon. Others may have the most energy in the mornings. Discussing how to plan around the grandparents’ needs is just as important as discussing how to work around the child’s and the parents’ schedules. 

What is the best way to ensure a positive experience?

I’d start with a discussion and lay out clear expectations and capabilities, so that neither the parents nor the grandparents feel burnt out or upset about the experience. If this is a situation that is mutually agreed upon, then everyone involved can benefit, especially the child and the grandparent.

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