Taking grandchildren to playgroups and picking them up from school can help stave off loneliness, research has found.

The study, a review of previous studies involving nearly 200,000 participants in 21 countries, suggested that looking after grandchildren regularly tends to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, including feeling less isolated and greater fulfilment.

By contrast those who looked after a spouse with an illness or disability were linked to increased feelings of loneliness, highlighting the additional burden on older unpaid carers.

Samia Akhter-Khan, a PhD student at King’s College London and first author of the study, said: “We see these quite clear consistent findings that grandparenting or caregiving to non-kin children has this positive effect whereas spousal caregiving had a negative effect on loneliness.”

The team reviewed 28 previous studies involving 191,652 over-50s in 21 countries, including the UK, and examined the link between loneliness and unpaid care. One study showed that adults aged over 60 years who spent on average 12  hours each week looking after grandchildren were 60% less likely to feel lonely than non-caregivers, and other research revealed similar trends.

“While caregiving for grandchildren may include some of the same time-intensive activities as caregiving for an older adult, such as bathing and feeding, children are integrated in a care network that usually involves parents and institutions, such as schools,” the authors write.

Volunteering across a range of activities, including social and environmental causes, was also linked to lower levels of loneliness. By contrast caring for an ill spouse or relative was consistently linked to higher levels of loneliness and isolation. The authors suggest that looking after a partner could be isolating when faced with “an absence of support from other people or organisations” and often people do not have a choice whether to become a caregiver in this scenario. It can also be “a preparation to transitioning into widowhood”.

The authors highlight “the stark contrast between different realities of care”, where in some contexts it is a costly and burdensome activity and in others rewarding and meaningful. They add that the role of older adults as caregivers needed to be given greater recognition.

“Older people are usually portrayed as the care receivers and a cost to society in terms of money for pensions and health problems,” said Akhter-Khan. “But they’re really important contributors in terms of caregiving and volunteering. They’re really valuable for our society.”

The findings are published in the journal Aging and Mental Health.

This content was originally published here.