Becky’s strong-willed grandmother, Patricia, steadfastly refused help from all family members — except from Becky. Her oldest grandchild, 26, had always been her favorite, and she still responded tenderly to her even as she reacted sourly to her own son and daughter, Becky’s mom. Only Becky received a big smile whenever she visited Patricia’s small apartment. Only Becky could convince her to take all her medications. Only Becky could cajole her to regularly use her walker and bathe.
Becky felt privileged — and burdened — by her special role. She loved her grandmother and enjoyed spending time with her. But she felt guilty, as if she were complicit, whenever Patricia rebuffed her mother’s pleas to consider hiring help. And she felt strained by the pressures of running errands for her grandmother and working a demanding full-time job. As the juggling became harder for her, she turned to her mother and uncle for help. The coolness of their responses spoke volumes. She realized they were envious that she got the best of their mother while they were dismissively held at arm's length.
As a large segment of millennial caregivers, caregiving granddaughters such as Becky are becoming more common. In many ways, they represent one of the most joyous and loving aspects of family life — a reaching across the generations to nurture one another. But granddaughter caregivers also have an ambiguous role. They can be helpful and persuasive but are not generally accorded the respect or authority of spouses or adult children by other family members. They are also often at a point in their own personal development when they expect to be focusing on their own growth, not an older relative’s decline. And, as in Becky’s case, they can be regarded by other family members with ambivalence.
How can granddaughters best employ their special relationships with grandparents who need help? And how can families best utilize those granddaughters to become valued members of the caregiving team? Here are some ideas:
- Supplement, don’t supplant: It can be flattering to be the person in the family whom a loved one has preferentially selected to be the one and only primary caregiver. But being the lone hero, rather than a member of a crack caregiving team, can be wearying and alienate you from others who feel sidelined, denigrated and disenfranchised. That’s what often happens to granddaughter caregivers. They would cope better in the long run by sharing the glory. Their role would be clearer and more sustainable if they supported a grandparent’s adult children and let them assume the lead and the major responsibilities.
- Respect your elders but set limits: Adult children have often gone through a period of adolescence and young adulthood during which they learned to assert themselves with their parents rather than forever jump to their every command. When the time for caregiving comes, they are hopefully able to have adult-to-adult negotiations with them about important decisions. Granddaughters — even those in their 20s and 30s — may have never forcefully expressed their own mind to a grandparent and may be deferential to a fault. But not every one of a grandparent’s wishes is wise nor preferences prudent during the caregiving years. It would be better for granddaughters to learn to push back — gently — at times to protect themselves from unreasonable demands or a grandparent from poor choices.
- Exercise earned authority: It can be extremely frustrating for a granddaughter to contribute to a grandparent’s care but then be treated like a kid with little voice in the family deliberations about the grandparent’s present and future. If she is capable enough to handle crucial responsibilities and be relied on for her persuasive powers, then she merits having her perspectives heard. Caring well for a grandparent should be a way of earning due respect from a parent.
- Be the legacy: One reason why grandmothers favor granddaughters is that they see themselves as they once were in them. They also see living evidence that their progeny and values are thriving in the world. Being that legacy — especially the smart, kind and hardworking sort — is as important a gift that a granddaughter can give a fading grandparent as laughter, good company and hands-on care.
- Cherish the memories: Many caregiving granddaughters go about their sometimes difficult business with a sense that time is limited and that they’ll cherish these moments with their grandparents now as well as much later. Many care-receiving grandparents feel that way, too. The interactions between them, however mundane, then takes on a special meaning for a special relationship. Few granddaughter caregivers will ever look back with regret.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.