Grandparent Caregiving Among Rural African Americans in a Community in the American South: Challenges to Health and Wellbeing

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Rural and Remote Health


Introduction: An increasing number of grandparents in rural USA are serving as primary caregivers for their grandchildren because of parental incarceration, addiction, joblessness, or illness. Low-income, African American women from the South are overrepresented in this growing population. There is a paucity of research exploring the challenges faced by rural grandparent caregivers, and past studies have not explicitly addressed the potential consequences of rural grandparent caregiving for health. The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore grandparent caregiving among rural, low-income, African American grandmothers in a community in the American South, and to identify challenges to health that arose in that context. McLeroy’s social ecological model (SEM) was used to examine these challenges at multiple levels of influence.

Methods: This qualitative interview-based study was conducted in a high-poverty community in rural Georgia. In-depth interviews were conducted with African American grandparent caregivers and key informants from local community-based organizations. A key informant assisted in identifying initial interview participants, and then snowball sampling was used to recruit additional participants. Interview questions were grouped under five domains (intrapersonal, interpersonal, community, organizational, and policy), according to the levels of the SEM. Iterative content analysis of interview transcripts was utilized. Transcripts were coded to identify text segments related to each domain of the SEM, which were grouped together for analysis by domain. Reflexive memo-writing aided in development of themes, and data quality was assessed using Lincoln and Guba’s trustworthiness criteria.

Results: Rural African American grandparent caregivers faced a range of challenges to health. Direct physical challenges included chronic pain that interfered with sleep and daily functioning, mobility issues exacerbated by child care, and the pressure of managing their own medical conditions as well as their grandchildren’s. Financial scarcity added to their vulnerability to poor health outcomes, especially when caregivers would forego purchase of medications or visits to the doctor because of expenses related to their grandchildren. In addition, lack of child care made health appointments and hospitalizations logistically difficult. Emotional strain was common as grandparent caregivers struggled to protect their grandchildren in communities where rates of drug use, HIV, and incarceration were high. Caregivers worried about their mortality and the related consequences for their grandchildren. Chronic stress, which is linked to a number of poor health outcomes, was self-reported by most rural grandparent caregivers.

Conclusions: In this study, the challenges of rural grandparent caregiving among African American women posed multiple threats to health and wellbeing. Further research is needed, in different rural contexts and with different caregiver populations, to more thoroughly examine the health risks of grandparent caregiving. In addition, the development of multi-faceted interventions and programs will be critical to meeting the needs of rural grandparent caregivers. A few models for such programs exist, although resource shortfalls have often limited their impact.