Rise Of "Slave Grandparent" Syndrome — When Child Care Is Unloaded On Grandma
Grandparents are increasingly forced into caregiving duties that leave them exhausted and can even affect their health. This is especially true for women.
BUENOS AIRES — Terms such as "grandparent slaves" sound like another world, but they are closer to home than we care to imagine. Do we ever stop to think who is caring for the carers?
Taking care of others — a task that generally falls to women — has effects that are under-appreciated if not made invisible. The duty is also often imposed without prior consent and distributed unfairly.
Obligations, economic issues, internal and external pressures and other factors can all create a work overload that degrades quality of life and can even harm one's health.
Lack of social recognition
Karin Kopitowski, head of Family and Community medicine at the Italian Hospital in Buenos Aires, says we should first clarify that for many grandparents, spending time with their grandchildren is "a tremendously enjoyable activity and source of energy and youth."
So we're talking here of "an unchosen situation of full-time care and responsibility." Kopitowski says there is no official medical diagnosis called a "slave grandparent syndrome," but the term is habitually used in medical care conversations.
Social recognition is lacking here.
In the case of grandmothers, the impact of this new workload is reflected in their physical and mental state. They may see a doctor with symptoms like insomnia, aches and pains or anxiety, and a brief exchange uncovers the reasons. These, says Kopitowski, "are the bodily expression of this state of enslavement (enslavement because they feel they have no choice). If the grandmother feels there is no relay and the system will fall apart if she's not there," she may soon face exhaustion.
The family, but also family doctors, often minimize their distress. "Social recognition is lacking here," says Kopitowski, adding that a first step toward a solution is for the situation to be recognized.
A grandmother playing with her grandson.
Measures to help carers
One factor behind this forced and stressful "return to work" in both parenting and caregiving to your own parents is that in many cases today's grandpas are, frankly, young for their age.
Kopitowski calls it a family "pincer movement" that provokes a middle generation's exhaustion. She says the warning signs pointing to the caregiver's exhaustion include insomnia and chronic tiredness, anger and possibly heart conditions. These will emerge over a prolonged period of caregiving, she adds, especially if care is also required for a great-grandparent with chronic illness, disablement or cognitive problems.
The family that ignores the signs may find itself scrambling.
The family that ignores the signs may belatedly find itself scrambling to find helpers. Kopitowski suggests three basic measures ahead of such moments, which she stresses must be explicit and changeable.
Anticipation: Carers must be given options and reminded of the need to care for themselves in a potentially prolonged situation. Their condition must in any case be seen as part of a "family or life crisis, for which resources are needed" rather than an isolated, medical situation.
Listening out for signs: Carers must be engaged to pay attention to the warning signs in their own body. They will need emotional help and stress-management techniques.
Adding carers: The caregiver must be allowed his or her social life and distractions, which means delegation of duties, and help. Sometimes, says Kopitowski, "as family doctors, we see that the weight of duties is divided with great inequality and someone else must step in. Even when you have several people able to provide care, the one who usually ends up doing it is the daughter-woman."
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