People are living longer and as a result, individuals are increasingly likely to become grandparents during their life course. In European countries, the proportion of grandparents among people aged 50 or over ranges between 50 and 67% (e.g. 67% in Denmark and 53% in Italy) (Glaser et al., 2010), and about 58% of grandmothers and almost half of grandfathers have the experience of providing grandchild care (Moore & Rosenthal, 2016). As elaborated in existing literature, grandchild care provision is an important factor affecting the grandparents’ health, and such effect varies across European countries (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Di Gessa et al., 2016). Recent evidence has underlined the need for examining the cross-national differences in the relationship between grandchild caring and grandparents’ depressive symptoms, and suggested the importance of examining macro-level factors to better understand such patterns (Arpino & Gomez-Leon, 2020; Chung & Park, 2018).
To date, most research examining the effect of grandparenthood on grandparents’ depressive symptoms has investigated different dimensions of grandparenthood from a relatively static perspective, such as becoming a grandparent, having additional grandchildren, and providing (intensive) grandchild care (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Condon et al., 2018; Di Gessa et al., 2016). However, there has been little research examining the direct effect of grandchild caring patterns, which capture the changes and transitions in the provision of grandchild care (e.g. having previously provided grandchild care but currently not providing such care) (Zhou et al., 2017). Moreover, the role of macro-level factors in determining the relationship between grandchild care provision and grandparents’ depressive symptoms has been relatively understudied (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Di Gessa et al., 2016; Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014). A country’s culture and public policies (e.g. family norms, public childcare availability, parental leave regulation and women labour force participation) have been shown to have a moderating effect on the relationship between grandparenting and late-life depression, for example it has been shown that such factors can change the direction and strength of this relationship (Di Gessa et al., 2016; Jappens & Van Bavel, 2012; Schwarz et al., 2010). At the same time, little attention has been paid in previous research to the role of a country’s economy on the relationship between providing grandchild care and the grandparents’ wellbeing (Yang, 2021).
In order to address the two research gaps mentioned above, this paper seeks to investigate grandchild caring patterns and their impact on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms across Europe, and the extent to which a country’s economy can moderate this relationship, based on multi-level analyses and using the four waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) data collected between 2012 and 2018.
Grandchild caring and depressive symptoms in Europe
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses among the older population in Europe (Copeland et al., 2004). Existing literature has highlighted that grandchild care provision influences depressive symptoms among grandparents, although such literature has shown inconsistent findings (Arpino & Gomez-Leon, 2020; Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Brunello & Rocco, 2019). For example, Brunello and Rocco (2019) focused on the time European grandparents spent providing grandchild care using the SHARE data Waves 1–2, and found that the more time grandparents dedicated to grandchild care, the higher the probability that they developed depressive symptoms. Using the same dataset, Arpino and Gomez-Leon (2020) found that providing grandchild care reduced the risk of being depressed among European grandmothers, and further pointed out that such effect disappeared if the respondents combined grandchild care with caring for other persons. Bordone and Arpino (2019) examined the cross-national differences in the role of transitioning to grandparenthood, having additional grandchildren, and providing grandchild care on older people’s depressive symptoms in Europe, by conducting fixed models with interaction terms between the explanatory variable and the country dummies. The authors concluded that the impact of grandchild caring on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms varied across Europe, and indicated the need for further research to understand such patterns (Bordone & Arpino, 2019).
The inconsistent findings of the previous research may be related to the different research methods used (Danielsbacka et al., 2019). Specifically, Brunello and Rocco (2019) used an instrumental variables strategy in order to identify the causal effect of grandchild caring on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms, whilst Arpino and Gomez-Leon (2020) assessed the effect of caregiving on the carers’ depression status with a lagged outcome model. As argued by Danielsbacka et al. (2019), the associations between grandchild caring and the health of grandparents were due to between-person differences, hence the fixed effects models which estimated the within-individual variations did not produce significant findings. This argument was partly supported by the research findings by Bordone and Arpino (2019), who found no significant effect of the change in providing grandchild care on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms using linear fixed-effects models based on the overall model including 15 European countries. However, by examining interactions between the country dummies and the grandchild caring variable, the researchers further pointed out that the effect of grandchild care provision on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms varied by European country, and showed significant results in certain contexts such as France and Spain. However, the researchers were unable to examine the exact country differences in this study, as fixed-effects estimation restricted the ability to assess the effect of invariant variables such as the country respondents resided in (Bordone & Arpino, 2019).
The role of grandchild caring patterns
To date, only few studies have focused on the dynamic pattern of grandchild care provision (Di Gessa et al., 2016; Musil et al., 2011; Zhou et al., 2017). The study by Musil et al. (2011) examined the impact of transitioning in grandparenting roles (e.g. moving in or out of caregiving) on the wellbeing of grandparents, and showed that switching to a higher caring burden (e.g. from non-caregiving to caregiving) was associated with worsening physical health and perceptions of increased stress among grandparents. Nevertheless, the study sample was collected in the state of Ohio and only included female participants (grandmothers), which could limit its relevance to other contexts. Di Gessa et al. (2016) used a seven-category measure assessing the stability and change in grandchild care provision between baseline and Wave 2, and suggested that non grandparent carers at both waves were associated with poorer self-rated health at Wave 4 compared to their counterparts who continued to provided non-intensive grandchild care between baseline and Wave 2. Another study using data from rural areas of China found that compared to non-carers, repeated grandparent carers and previous grandparent carers had better self-rated health (Zhou et al., 2017). As pointed out by Zhou et al. (2017), research on grandchild caring has mostly compared current carers with non-carers or simply measured the intensity of grandchild caring, and overlooked the change in grandchild caring status. These studies shed light on the importance of examining the change in the intensity of grandchild care provision on the grandparents’ health.
Cross-national differences in Europe
The study by Bordone and Arpino (2019) and other recent research have shown cross-national differences in the relationship between grandparenthood and grandparents’ wellbeing in Europe (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Di Gessa et al., 2016; Yang, 2021). As there has been little comparative empirical research directly examining the differences in the relationship between grandchild caring and grandparents’ depression across Europe, this section broadly reviews the studies on the cross-national differences in grandparenting and grandparents’ health in Europe. Up to now, the literature on this topic has investigated the effect of the welfare state, cultural norms, contextual–structural factors and other country-specific factors on the provision of grandchild care (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Conde-Sala et al., 2017; Igel & Szydlik, 2011; Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014; Yang, 2021).
One of the most common typologies to contextualise the differences in grandparenthood in European society is the welfare state. Previous research has established that grandparents in Southern European countries are less likely than their counterparts in Northern European countries to provide grandchild care (Hank & Buber, 2009; Igel & Szydlik, 2011; Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014). However, once providing grandchild care, grandparents in Southern Europeans countries are more likely to provide intensive care compared to their counterparts in Northern European countries (ibid). Igel and Szydlik (2011) pointed out that the welfare state in Nordic countries ‘crowded in’ grandchild care provision, but ‘crowded out’ the intensity of such care provision. Recent studies have further shown that grandchild caring was associated with better quality of life in the Southern European regime only (Spain and Italy), and not in any other European countries (Conde-Sala et al., 2017; Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014).
Other researchers have examined the role of cultural norms, which are highly correlated with the welfare state (Arpino et al., 2018; Jappens & Van Bavel, 2012; Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014). The research by Jappens and Van Bavel (2012) showed that in countries with stronger family ties, grandchild care was the main source of childcare even when the availability of formal childcare was controlled. Neuberger and Haberkern (2014) pointed out that in European countries with high expectations for grandparent obligations such as Italy and Spain, grandparents who did not provide grandchild care had a lower quality of life compared to their counterparts who provided such care. Consistent with this finding, Arpino et al. (2018) found that grandparents who did not provide grandchild care reported lower life satisfaction in countries where intensive grandparental childcare was socially expected.
Another dimension focuses on the contextual–structural factors, such as formal childcare provision, female labour market structure and parental leave policy (Bordone et al., 2017; Di Gessa et al., 2016). Di Gessa et al. (2016) found that the variation in grandchild caring across Europe was mostly determined by the female labour market structure and formal childcare provision, in particular low labour force participation among younger and older women, and low formal childcare provision were related to more intensive grandchild care provision. Bordone et al. (2017) argued that the effect of grandparenthood on grandparents’ depression varied between three country categories, using the classification of defamilialisation, familialism by default, and supported familialism to distinguish between contexts based on the division of intergenerational responsibilities between the state and the family. Furthermore, one recent study by Lakomý (2020) interestingly suggested that the beneficial effect of grandchild caring on loneliness reduced with the increasing availability of formal childcare services.
Some research findings have gone beyond the contextual factors mentioned above, and examined the role of country-specific factors directly (Bordone & Arpino, 2019; Yang, 2021). For example, it was found that more intensive grandchild care was associated with a higher number of depressive symptoms among grandmothers in Spain and Sweden, while the opposite was true in Italy and Greece (Bordone & Arpino, 2019). Either the role of the welfare state or cultural norms fails to explain the similar results in Spain and Sweden, suggesting the need to explore other country-specific factors in affecting the relationship between grandchild caring and the grandparents’ depressive symptoms. One recent study by Yang (2021) examined the role of a country’s economy in moderating the impact of transitioning to grandparenthood on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms across England, Europe and China. The author demonstrated that becoming a grandparent reduced the number of depressive symptoms among men and women in lower income countries, but had an adverse effect in higher income countries, controlling for baseline health (Yang, 2021).
To our knowledge, there has been no research examining how a country’s economy can influence the relationship between grandchild caring patterns and the grandparents’ depressive symptoms, which is the focus of the current study.
Ambivalence as a concept to understand intergenerational relationships and family ties was developed by Connidis and McMullin (2002), which has encouraged multi-level analysis linking individual behaviour and macro-level environment, such as economic, social and political systems (Connidis, 2015). Structured ambivalence was firstly used by Neuberger and Haberkern (2014) in order to understand how cultural norms can influence the effect of grandchild care provision on the grandparents’ quality of life. The authors found that in countries with high expectations for grandparenting, grandparents who did not provide grandchild care reported low quality of life, which was explained by the contradictions between individual behaviour and societal expectations (Neuberger & Haberkern, 2014). Similarly, studies by Arpino and Bordone found that in countries with strong filial norms, not providing grandchild care had negative effects on the life satisfaction and depressive symptoms of the grandparents, providing further evidence for the structural ambivalence theory (Arpino et al., 2018; Bordone & Arpino, 2019).
Connidis (2015) highlighted that it is crucial to examine multi-level ambivalence in order to advance the concept and its application in research on intergenerational relationships. Previous research has mainly concentrated on the negotiation between grandchild caring and cultural norms, and yet overlooked the interconnection between individual experience/behaviours and macro-economic environment. The study by Yang (2021) was the first to investigate the role of a country’s economy in moderating the relationship between the transition to grandparenthood and the grandparents’ depressive symptoms. However, this study only examined the effect of becoming a grandparent on the grandparents’ depressive symptoms, suggesting that further analysis needs to be conducted in order to understand the relationship between grandchild care provision and depressive symptoms using multi-level models. Another study by Neuberger and Preisner (2018) in a related research area investigated the role of a country’s economy in affecting the relationship between having children and the parent’s quality of life based on the SHARE and ELSA data. It was found that people aged 50 + living in countries with lower gross domestic product per capita benefited the most from the transition to parenthood (Neuberger & Preisner, 2018).
A prosperous society can provide grandparents with economic resources, suitable housing, assistive technologies and alternatives to grandchild care provision, which interact with grandchild care provision (Haberkern et al., 2011). Therefore, in wealthier countries, the provision of grandchild care or more intensive grandchild care result in the contradiction with the sufficient resources accompanied with the country’s economy, exerting a negative impact on grandparents’ depressive symptoms. Conversely, in less wealthy countries, the provision of grandchild care or more intensive grandchild care are consistent with the country’s low income and relatively insufficient public resources, and can bring benefits for grandparents’ health. Based on this, it is hypothesised that in less wealthy countries, the provision of grandchild care or more intensive grandchild care can reduce depressive symptoms among grandparents (Hypothesis 1), but increase grandparents’ depressive symptoms in higher income countries (Hypothesis 2).
Gender can also play an important role in influencing the relationship. Women often undertake more family responsibilities than men especially in lower income countries (Powell & Greenhaus, 2010), hence they may experience more health benefits than men from grandparenting as this fulfils cultural expectations (Arpino et al., 2018; Chen & Liu, 2012). Specifically, it is hypothesised that grandmothers report fewer depressive symptoms than grandfathers when caring at the same intensity and patterns (Hypothesis 3). In addition, based on previous research (Yang, 2021), another hypothesis is that the gender gap of the effect of grandchild care patterns on depressive symptoms is wider in lower income countries than higher income countries (Hypothesis 4).
Based on the evidence reviewed here, this study proposes the following hypotheses:
In less wealthy countries, the provision of grandchild care or more intensive grandchild care reduces depressive symptoms among grandparents.
In wealthier countries, the provision of grandchild care or more intensive grandchild care increases depressive symptoms among grandparents.
Providing grandchild care can be more protective for the depressive symptoms among grandmothers than grandfathers.
The gender gap of grandmothers being more likely to experience depressive symptoms from grandchild caring than grandfathers is wider in less wealthy countries than in wealthier countries.