Greek Grandfamilies (Kinship Caregivers)

Although this blog is called “Aging in America,” indulge me just for today. Although I’ll talk a bit about Greece and Europe, this isn’t unrelated to issues here in these United States.

Anyways, I have a habit of getting up particularly early in the mornings, usually a shade before 5am. I kind of enjoy it – everyone’s asleep, and I get to bustle around the kitchen, make coffee, do the dishes, and make sure a hot breakfast is ready for my kids when they wake up in the morning. While I do it, I also play a feed of “Russia Today” (RT) on my laptop while I do my thing. This is where I get plugged into the currently rather dismal world of international politics and finance (maybe it’s always been dismal).

A few mornings ago, I heard a fascinating spin on something that we all know has been going on for awhile, the so-called Greek “austerity crisis,” which refers to the steep economic decline being suffered in this country supposedly due to what are widely seen in the media as “draconian” or “savage” spending cuts.

To digress for a moment – the true picture of what is causing Greece’s problems are likely a bit more complicated. It appears that spending growth (which is different than spending cuts) seems to have flattened in Greece. Taxes, particularly those that affect the middle and bottom rungs of the economic ladder, such as the highly regressive, infamous Value Added Tax, or VAT – have skyrocketed. Finally, pension and wage guarantees for middle and lower-class public sector workers have been slashed. Overall government spending doesn’t seem to have been significantly affected in Greece. Getting on my soapbox for a moment – my guess is that the well-connected banker types continue to find ways to line their pockets in the Eurozone, as always, while the net affect is that the middle and lower classes in Greece have seen their incomes slashed, services cut, and taxes hiked, with predictable results.

Politics aside, regardless as to what the ultimate cause of Greece’s troubles are, the end result is it’s a country mired in deep recession, if not outright economic depression.

So what does this have to do with older adults, or “aging in America”? One of the things that piqued my interest about this story on RT was that they talked about the increasingly-observed phenomenon in Greece of grandparents caring for grandchildren. This is being driven by the phenomenon of Greek adults who are increasingly being forced to seek work abroad due to the slumping Greek economy. In the story (which I only briefly overheard), the somber-voiced RT newscaster spoke about viewing a Greek square in a small Greek town where children played in a fountain and socialized while their adult caregivers watched. Yet when you actually looked at the adults that were minding these children, they were all clearly overwhelmingly aged grandparents, with no younger adult faces to be found. Economic security is gone from Greece, a stark contrast from a decade ago.

This phenomenon of “grandfamilies” or “kinship caregivers” is certainly one of which I am familiar, having worked with this population as a postdoc in Rochester, New York. In the United States, where this phenomenon has been well-studied at this point, it’s mostly a phenomenon found in the social underclass of poor, African-American families where the parents have been decimated by the War on Drugs and mass imprisonment, drug addiction, or HIV/AIDS. Grandparents typically step in and are the ones that provide custodial care in lieu of their grandchildren ending up in the foster care system, which is a laudable goal – it definitely fits with cultural values in this case, families in the African American community “taking care of their own” and being self-sufficient within their own community.

However, taking on this role comes with some costs; as research tends to suggest, kinship care can be a stressful business.  Older adults in this role find themselves at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and stress-related illness than others. Some think this is because kinship carers are mourning the loss of their imagined lifestyle at retirement (e.g., being able to travel, relax, not work, see family at their own leisure, etc.), but they may also be mourning the loss of their children, especially if the event that caused them to take on this role in the first place was something tragic, like death. Also, family strains are frequently found – in the kinship caregivers I worked with in Rochester, often there were ongoing issues with parents who were peripherally still involved in the childrens’ lives, but due to drug addiction were only able to contribute dysfunction to the family and not much else. These grandparents may also be “double caregivers,” they may be caring for a relative or spouse of their own (perhaps with dementia or another chronic illness) at the same time they are caring for their grandchildren.

Finally, the children themselves are obviously a source of stress. Not only must these older people re-acclimate themselves to the physically and mentally taxing nature of child caregiving, they must do it within the context of an aging body and with their own health issues to contend with. It becomes even more challenging when you consider the possibility that many of these children may have some serious behavioral and emotional issues of their own to contend with, which may make them even more of a challenge to care for.

As I mentioned earlier, the issue of kinship caregiving and “grandfamilies” is still a fairly wide-open area for study and intervention. While there is some activity out there suggesting that comprehensive intervention programs may be being developed to address issues found in kinship carers, as of yet this area has not developed to the degree seen in (for example) the REACH-II program for dementia caregivers.

I’m glumly noting that the economic troubles of Europe seem to be continuing and not resolving, as are much of the economic troubles of the world (some would say that the recession has never really ended in the United States). Does this mean more parents will be uprooted from their children in industrialized countries due to the desperation of needing to find paid work? If other nations “go Greece,” will the phenomenon of kinship caregiving spread to other industrialized nations? It’s possible kinship caregiving will cease being just seen as a niche issue only affecting the urban underclass of the US and the world, and may soon be something hitting near you. The upside of this is that these particular older adult caregivers may finally get the attention they deserve, and maybe they’ll start getting the help they need.

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