Our study results reveal the changing pattern of associations between elders’ intergenerational exchanges and their depression and loneliness from 1993 to 2007. In general, elders had fewer depressive symptoms in 2007 than they did in 1993. In addition, elders’ intergenerational exchanges, including taking care of grandchildren, co-residing with a partner and co-residing with their children, were all found to be associated with elders’ depression and loneliness. Elders who lived with a partner or children or who provided grandchild care had a lower risk of feeling lonely and a lower risk of having depressive symptoms. However, the impact of elders’ co-residence with partners and children on their depression and loneliness decreased over time, whereas the impact of elders’ provision of grandchild care on their depression and loneliness increased over time. In 2007, elders who did not provide grandchild care had a significantly higher risk of feeling lonely and sad and were significantly more likely to have high CES-D scores; these strong associations were not found in 1993 and 1999.
The changing role of women might be one of the important factors affecting the evolution of family arrangements. The female participation rate in the labor force in Taiwan increased from 36.4% in 1960 to 49.6% in 2010 because of industrialization and urbanization, which resulted in an increased need for child care, especially from grandparents . In the same period, the number of illiterate elders in Taiwan gradually decreased, and a greater number of elderly individuals lived in urban areas than in rural areas. In addition, a greater number of elders lived without partners, and fewer elders lived with their children. Furthermore, elders provided more grandchild care than before, while more of their adult children entered the work force and began having children. These changes show that the daily focus of elderly people transferred from concern for their partners and adult children to care for their grandchildren. The associations between the changing pattern of elders’ intergenerational involvement and its effect on their mental health reflect not only changing relationships within families but also the increasing impact of interacting with grandchildren on preventing depression in the elderly.
Assuming the role of a grandparent has become a normal stage in the family cycle; because of increasing life expectancy and decreasing fertility, most people now have more years to devote to their grandchildren than ever before. This phenomenon might also lead to unexpected side effects, such as healthy, wealthy grandparents competing for the attention of fewer grandchildren . Our finding that grandparents who take care of grandchildren had greater psychological well-being might be a reflection of their desire to interact with their grandchildren. The emotional attachments between grandparents and grandchildren have been described as unique in that the relationship is exempt from the psycho-emotional intensity and responsibility that exist in parent–child relationships. Previous studies on the grandparent-grandchild relationship mainly focused on the perspective of the grandchild and reported children’s feelings of love and acceptance from their grandparents [21, 22]. Our study results also found a positive impact of interacting with grandchildren on elders’ psychological well-being, which reflects the elderly’s need for their grandchildren’s love and company.
In addition, previous studies based on the social exchange viewpoint, in which older people feel unhappy when depending on an imbalanced exchange relationship, highlighted the correlation between elders’ greater life satisfaction and their roles as “givers” . Compared with the need to be supported, the inability to establish a reciprocal relationship could more seriously devastate elders’ morale. Therefore, elders who provide more grandchild care gain emotional rewards from helping their adult children and interacting with their grandchildren.
Our participants were elders aged above 60 years old who were retired or nearly retired. Although elders today report reduced loneliness and sadness and fewer depressive symptoms, owing to advanced communication techniques and social media, most elders in this age group experience serious social losses both within and outside of the family, especially after retirement. In addition, recent studies have reported the strong correlation between elders’ loneliness and poor health outcomes, including death and multiple measures of functional decline, reflecting the fact that loneliness is an emerging issue for elders . Following our study findings of the importance of grandparent-grandchild interactions in preventing elders’ loneliness, more studies are needed for a better understanding of the impact of intergenerational transfers on elders’ mental health.
There were some limitations in this study. First, our finding can only be considered to be an association (rather than a cause) because the information on elders’ intergenerational exchanges and their responses about depression and loneliness were cross-sectional. Second, we did not address the possible inverse causation that people with depression are less likely to perform grandchild care. There may be other potentially explanatory variables beyond the scope of the current study, such as poor mental health or geographic distance from children and grandchildren, that simultaneously increase depression and loneliness and reduce grandchild care. Third, the ages of the grandchildren were not specifically considered because of the lack of that information in this study. Fourth, we believe that we underestimated the impact of providing care for grandchildren on elders’ mental health in Taiwan because of the high “reporting threshold”: in Chinese culture, elders who care for grandchildren for only part of a day might not be considered as taking care of grandchildren.