Are Chinese-American grandparents under too much stress?

Chinese Americans often devote long hours to their grandchildren, but many of them experience this as a burden, a groundbreaking study has revealed.

“Our findings show that grandparenting is not a necessarily rewarding experience for Chinese older adults,” writes Dr. Xinqi Dong of Rush University Medical Center, who’s been studying the older Chinese population of Chicago for nearly a decade.

Twenty-two percent of the grandparents he surveyed reported that grandparenting was burdensome to them at least some of the time.

“Our findings show that grandparenting is not a necessarily rewarding experience for Chinese older adults.”

This is disturbing, Dong writes, in light of “the deleterious effects of feelings of burden and stress on psychological and physical well-being.”

And Dong suspects that the actual prevalence of “grandparenting burden” in the community is considerably higher than 22 percent, since many Chinese older adults believe in “saving face” and may have concealed any negative sentiments from researchers, he says.

Chinese-American grandparents often assume significant responsibility for their grandchildren while the middle generation pursues paid work. Sometimes, parents take jobs hundreds of miles from home and only see their families occasionally.

But the care that grandparents provide “is not merely a favor among family members,” Dong writes.

In China, “caring for grandchildren has traditionally been considered sacrosanct, especially for women.” It’s seen as a way to “bind together generations” and ensure that elders are able to “pass down wisdom, advice, and life experiences.”

In immigrant Chinese families, however, there may be more conflict among the generations, particularly if a family’s elders were born in China and their kids and grandkids weren’t, according to Dong. Older Chinese Americans may also suffer from a “lack of adequate social support.”

Dong’s subjects experienced grandparenting burden in a variety of ways: some felt pressure from their kids to care for their grandkids; some said caring for grandkids was trying; and some felt that grandparenting was damaging their health.

About 35 percent of the more than 2,000 grandparents Dong surveyed were providing care for grandkids. Many of the rest, he says, were “older-old” grandparents whose grandchildren were teenagers or adults.

About 40 percent of the grandparents who cared for grandkids did so for 31 hours a week or more; most of the rest were providing between 11 and 30 hours a week of care.

The younger grandparents in the study were at higher risk of feeling burdened than the older ones, perhaps because “younger grandparents may have younger grandchildren who require more care.”

Grandparents who were providing many hours of care and grandparents in large households were also more likely to feel burdened. Dong estimates that at least 20 percent of his subjects lived with their grandchildren, though that wasn’t a question on his survey.

The study, part of a larger investigation into the health of older Chinese Americans, was conducted in partnership with the non-profit Chinese American Service League.

All the grandparents surveyed were over 60, most were born in China, and most earned less than $10,000 per year.