It’s sad but true that many seniors sink into depression in what could otherwise be very happy years…and that many young adults suffer from depression, too, as they struggle to establish themselves in their grown-up lives.

So let me jump straight to the happy news. There is a drug-free, cost-free way in which seniors and young adults alike can guard against depression—while bringing a great deal of enjoyment to themselves and to each other.

The secret lies in establishing strong relationships between grandparents and their adult grandchildren—and there are two key factors that make it work…



With a life expectancy of 79 years, typical Americans now live long enough to really get to know their grandchildren—not just as adorable tots, but as full-fledged adults who are graduating from school, starting careers and finding life partners. At the same time, these grandchildren have a chance to interact with their grandparents from an adult perspective—to appreciate their wisdom and experiences, and perhaps even to repay their grandparents for all the help and support they received while growing up.

Yet there’s a surprising lack of scientific research on such relationships. So it is unique data that comes from the Longitudinal Study of Generations, a survey of three- and four-generation American families that began back in 1971. Researchers drew on data collected at seven different points in time between 1985 and 2004 to see whether the risk for depression was affected by the relationships between 376 grandparents and 340 of their adult grandchildren. (In cases where a grandparent had multiple grandchildren, it was the researchers who selected the specific grandchild to include, thus removing bias that might occur if grandparents opted to report on a favorite grandchild.)

Depression was measured at each of the seven points in time by using a 20-item scale that asked the participants to report how frequently they felt certain symptoms, such as sadness, lack of appetite or insomnia. The scores for each item ranged from one (rarely or not at all) to four (most or all of the time).

Results: The researchers found correlations between the depression scores in both generations and the following two key factors…

  • How emotionally close the grandparents and grandchildren were. Grandparents and grandchildren reported how emotionally close they were to each other by answering questions such as, “How close do you feel your relationship with your grandparent [or grandchild] is right now?” Answers ranged from one (not at all) to six (extremely).Findings: The closer the grandparents and grandchildren felt to each other, the lower (better) the depression scores for both generations were likely to be over the course of the 19 years.
  • The amount of practical support they provided to each other. Grandparent/grandchild pairs described how often they received help from each other in four specific “everyday” areas—household chores, information and advice, financial assistance and discussing important life decisions. There were four possible outcomes—neither party giving or receiving help…grandparent giving but not receiving help…grandchild giving but not receiving help…and both parties giving and receiving help.Findings: Grandparents who both gave and received practical support had the lowest (best) depression scores. The next best scores were for grandparents who gave but did not receive support…followed by those who neither gave nor received support. It’s noteworthy that grandparents who received but did not give practical support had the highest (worst) depression scores by far. The researchers suggested that this is because older adults want to be independent and productive, so it’s depressing not to have the wherewithal to offer support to loved ones.

    Somewhat surprisingly, for the grandchildren, there was no connection between depression symptoms and any exchange of practical support.



Grandparents: Remember, just because your grandkids are grown doesn’t mean they don’t need you. However, what’s important to their psychological well-being probably is not the goods and services you provide, but rather the emotional closeness. So even if you’re on a tight budget or have health problems or are otherwise dependent on help from younger family members, you do have something to offer to your grandchildren—your unwavering love and affection. Having a close emotional bond with you can help them successfully navigate the life transitions of early adulthood, such as moving out of their parents’ home, going to college, joining the full-time workforce, finding a life partner and having children of their own. This unique gift can be more valuable to your grandchildren than any material offering.

Grandkids: You may think that the best way to show respect is to take care of your elders’ needs, and it’s great to help with chores or drive them to appointments—but to be happy, your grandparents need to feel needed, too. So let Grandpa write you a birthday check (even if he’s on a fixed income) or counsel you on a big career move…ask Grandma to share her secrets for baking perfect muffins or making a marriage last a lifetime. As a bonus, you might find amazing value in what they have to say!

Sandwich generation: If your parents and your grown children aren’t close, encourage them to deepen their connection by nurturing a mutually supportive relationship. You’ll be boosting the emotional health of both generations…and helping establish patterns for rewarding connections to your own future grandchildren.


If you don’t have grandchildren/grandparents: Why not try forging a closer relationship with a neighbor who is two generations removed from you? Although this study did not look at such “honorary” grandchild/grandparent relationships, it seems reasonable that the mutual affection and support involved in such intergenerational friendships would be extremely rewarding for both you and your new friend.

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