Grandparents unable to look after their grandchildren during the pandemic were far more likely to experience depressive symptoms, compared to those who continued to care for youngsters, a study has shown.
The new research by University College London (UCL) is the latest to highlight the mental health harms of keeping families apart in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak.
In 2020, many older people were asked to shield, or stay in bubbles which kept them away from their children and grandchildren.
UCL examined data from 2,468 grandparents over the age of 50 with grandchildren under the age of 15 to see how the change had impacted their mental health.
In comparison, just 26 per cent of those who were able to continue looking after youngsters experienced similar symptoms.
Those stopped from looking after grandchildren or had their time limited, also reported lower life satisfaction and a lower quality of life.
Lead author Dr Giorgio Di Gessa of UCL's Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “Grandparents who were unable to see and spend time with their grandchildren for reasons beyond their control might have been frustrated and distressed about it, leading to negative consequences for their mental health.
“Looking after grandchildren may provide grandparents with emotional gratification and a sense of usefulness and competence, thereby enhancing life satisfaction.
“Grandparents’ involvement in such a family activity may also provide them with a sense of value and attachment, thereby strengthening intergenerational relationships and positive emotional exchanges that might benefit their mental health.”
Just before the pandemic outbreak more than half of grandparents in the study reported looking after their grandchildren, but 22 per cent of those said that time had been cut once restrictions came into force.
Forced to stop caring
One in 10 said they had been forced to stop caring for their grandchildren entirely.
During the first year of the pandemic older people were advised by the government to stay indoors and limit their in-person interactions with others to reduce the risk of catching Covid-19.
This included staying away from grandchildren and younger people with Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, using the phrase 'don’t kill your gran' in a BBC radio interview.
Co-author Dr Valeria Bordone, of the University of Vienna, said if similar policies were considered in future, governments needed to weigh up the impact on mental health.
“If physical distancing policies remain a core strategy to protect individuals at higher risk from Covid-19 variants or indeed in a future pandemic, attention should be paid to addressing the mental health and wider needs of older people who may suffer from the loss of meaningful roles in their family and society,” she added.
Data was taken from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.