By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 17, 2013

A new study by Sociology Assistant Professor Sara Moorman and doctoral candidate in sociology Jeffrey Stokes shows that a close, emotional relationship between grandparents and adult grandchildren can have a measurable effect on the psychological well-being of both grandparents and grandchildren.

“We found that an emotionally close grandparent-adult grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations,” said Moorman, who is also affiliated with the University’s Institute on Aging. “Grandparents and adult grandchildren can be real resources to each other.”

The study, “Does Solidarity in the Grandparent/Grandchild Relationship Protect Against Depressive Symptoms?,” highlights a “new dimension” of the family dynamic, according to Moorman: “Grandparents are living longer and living long enough to have relationships with adult grandchildren.”

For the study, Moorman and Stokes used data from the Longitudinal Study of Generations, a survey of three- and four-generation American families that includes waves of data collected between 1985 and 2004. The sample group had 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren.

The researchers looked at two kinds of connections between grandparents and adult grandchildren: affectual solidarity or emotional closeness, and functional solidarity or tangible support, such as performing chores, giving advice or financial help, or providing transportation.

“The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health,” said Moorman.

The study also revealed that giving tangible support to, or receiving it from, their grandchildren affected the psychological well-being of grandparents. Those grandparents who gave, or gave and received, tangible support had fewer depressive symptoms, said Moorman.

“Encouraging more grandparents and adult grandchildren to engage in this type of exchange may be a fruitful way to reduce depression in older adults. In other words, let granddad write you a check on your birthday, even if he’s on Social Security and you’ve held a real job for years now.”

Grandparents who only received tangible support, but did not or could not give it, had the most depressive symptoms.

“If a grandparent gets help, but can’t give it, he or she feels bad. Grandparents expect to be able to help their grandchildren, even when their grandchildren are grown, and it’s frustrating and depressing for them to instead be dependent on their grandchildren,” said Moorman.

Researchers were surprised to find that there was no connection between giving or receiving tangible support and depressive symptoms in the adult grandchildren.

The study, which was presented in August at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, has garnered attention from the New York Times, US News & World Report and CBS News, among other media outlets.

Moorman said she thinks the study resonated with people because of its positive message. “It’s a good story about family relationships,” she said. “Grandparents and adult grandchildren contribute to each other significantly. That grandparents still continue to be a resource and affect the well-being of their grandchildren into adulthood is meaningful.

“The study also tells us that in addition to spouses and children, adult grandchildren can be a real resource when it comes to the care of an older adult.”