Older people are being urged to self-isolate to protect themselves from the potentially deadly COVID-19. At the same time, many parents can’t keep working without the support of grandparents who look after their children. School closures in some states and territories this week will give rise to more requests for grandparent childcare, heightening the dilemma.
Australian families rely heavily on grandparents for childcare. In 2017, approximately 864,000 children in Australia were cared for by a grandparent in a typical week. More parents rely on grandparents than any other form of childcare.
Grandparents devote a great deal of time caring for both pre-school and school-aged children. For very young children, grandparents provide substantial amounts of care, often several days per week. For many school-aged children, grandparents play a vital role in providing before and after school care, as well as in school holidays. This unpaid, often invisible, care makes it possible for many parents to work. It underpins the financial security of many Australian families.
Gender is important in the dynamics of grandparent childcare. We know from Australian research that grandparents are particularly important in supporting mothers to participate in paid work. We also know that most grandparent childcare is performed by grandmothers. In many circumstances, it is mothers and grandmothers arranging the care of grandchildren. In circumstances in which a child is sick, for example, it can be mothers and grandmothers who negotiate who will take time out of work to care for that child.
It’s not a one-way transaction. Grandparents report that their lives are enriched by spending time with their grandchildren. While excessive care responsibilities can place unreasonable pressure on grandparents, most of those who regularly see or provide care for their grandchildren enjoy the experience and describe a wide range of benefits for their physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as for their cognitive functioning and social connectedness.
Now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure or partial closure of schools (and possibly childcare centres) for an indefinite time, parents and grandparents face an impossible challenge.
In the coming weeks, many parents will feel pressure to call more often on grandparents for childcare so that they can keep working. Even those with the option of working from home are likely to call on grandparents, given how difficult it can be to produce work while caring for young children. A recent study of grandparents providing regular childcare for their grandchildren found that 96 per cent agree to provide care in a crisis or emergency. So when asked in coming weeks, many grandparents are likely to oblige.
But this will be a fraught decision.
People aged over 60 – the age of most grandparents– are faced with the highest known risks from COVID-19. This age group is therefore being advised to be much more careful about spending time with the young children in their lives. Children under 16 are now all but banned from visiting residential aged care facilities.
The typically safe and supportive environment of the family home is suddenly in question; potentially, caring for grandchildren could be highly risky.
We already know something about families living with infectious diseases like hepatitis. The experience of being diagnosed with a frightening infection can be mitigated by having family stay close and provide support, no matter what. The complex social ties within families hold us together during times of ill health. But COVID-19 takes us into new territory.
Some families are making the tough call: the older people in the family should isolate themselves as much as they can. It’s an upsetting prospect for many older people whose emotional wellbeing relies on family contact. Suddenly the intergenerational work/family juggle, in which many parents and grandparents manage childcare, paid work and other activities, is breaking down. The playful, noisy visits, and the stimulation (and exhaustion) that come with them will be gone, leaving a void. It also places pressure on parents to withdraw from the labour market, and in many families, this is likely to be women.
Others are making the equally tough, and likely to be increasingly stigmatised, decision to carry on with their grandparent childcare arrangements. These grandparents may feel under pressure to limit the financial hardship faced by adult children with mortgages to pay and no other childcare options. They may agree to help out as they always have while wrestling with their anxiety about how to make sense of the strong public health messages about the risks that COVID-19 poses to older people.
In some families, the risk is reversed: grandparents worry that they may pass on the virus to children living with chronic health conditions. And let’s not forget that many grandparents remain in the workforce and will need to make financial sacrifices if they take time off for care responsibilities.
Either way, the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic social and policy changes ahead are putting parents and grandparents in an invidious position. For many older Australians, the new pressures on intergenerational childcare arrangements will interrupt the ways they connect with their adult children and grandchildren. For those families who do find themselves physically separated, cultivating connection beyond the forms of closeness and distance they are used to, such as through new practices of electronic communication, will be essential, to avoid loneliness among family members and the challenges to wellbeing that come with it.