Slave Grandparent Syndrome

Changes that have occurred in recent decades to the family structure have given origin to a phenomenon that affects a great number of older people: slave grandparent syndrome.
Slave Grandparent Syndrome

Written by Elena García

Last update: 14 December, 2021

To some extent, the emergence of the slave grandparent syndrome in Spain is due to changes that have occurred in recent decades to the family structure. Some important aspects are the incorporation of women into the working world and the increase in life expectancy.

Because of these aspects, there’s been a rise in older people taking care of their grandchildren, full-time. In part, this greatly facilitates the balance between work and family life.

But, where are the limits? You have to know how to respect the boundaries of grandparents. Likewise, you cannot forget that they’ve already provided for their families and done their part.

Retirement should be a moment of liberation. In particular, it’s a time for rest and enjoyment. So, after a life full of work, you celebrate that you can finally dedicate some time to leisure and your hobbies. But, what’s going on right now?

According to Colubi and Sancho, slave grandparent syndrome causes a set of psychological and physical symptoms in elderly people due to social changes. This set of symptoms has consequences on different levels, starting at the physical level.

depressed older woman

Appeasement and the role of grandparents in families

How important is the role of grandparents in families? Given the turbulent times we’ve been living in for some years, the support of the elderly is fundamental. In particular, they help by alleviating the social impact of the crisis on families. Specifically, they do so by providing support in several ways:

  • Financial support: Many grandparents have been ‘forced’ to support both their children and grandchildren. Because of the Spanish economic crisis, there have been many who’ve taken on the expenses and needs of their extended family.
  • Taking care of their grandchildren: With parents working long hours, grandparents are now responsible for taking care of their grandchildren. They take them to extracurricular activities, medical appointments, playtime and more. Without the support of the grandparents, in many cases, it would be impossible to do all of those things. Therefore, this has made it easier for parents to have a family without giving up their working lives.
  • Help with household chores: Cooking, cleaning, or any other chore. Before, many families could afford to pay someone to help them with household chores. However, the crisis began to take a toll on household finances. This meant that grandparents had to take care of all of these tasks to support their children.

“It’s not old you are, but how you are old.”

-Jules Renard-

On many occasions, all of the above activities has led to a dynamic where grandparents are overburdened. Therefore, this results in what we call slave grandparent syndrome. With this in mind, it’s important to learn how to set limits, and not reach the point of abuse.

Symptoms of slave grandparent syndrome

“What at first may seem like an effective, therapeutic and enriching idea for all parties, in many cases, later on, the role of the grandparent turns into a modern version of a slave, shackled by affective bonds”.


On the other hand, slave grandparent syndrome doesn’t take into account the benefits of this arrangement if done properly. Taking care of grandchildren forms stronger bonds with them as well as bringing other benefits:

  • Grandparents enjoy their role.
  • They can spend more time with their grandchildren.
  • Oftentimes, both parties are happy.
  • Grandparents are more active than usual.
  • There’s more safety for grandparents and grandchildren.

On the other hand, there are many drawbacks and negative effects if both parties don’t set limits. If that’s the case, we’re dealing with slave grandparent syndrome.

  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Feeling forced to help
  • Little social life and little free time
  • Worsening health
  • Family fights
older man experiencing slave grandparent syndrome

Limits and planning

Remember that grandparents don’t have the same energy and capacity they used to when they were parents. During old age, physical limitations may appear. Therefore, it’s necessary to set limits.

Likewise, you need to establish a routine where grandparents also have time they can spend away from the kids. In other words, grandparents are also people with their own interests. Oftentimes these interests not only benefit themselves but their grandchildren as well.

You have to take into account their aspirations, future plans, and preferencesTheir opinion, although it may not be adapted to actuality, will always be backed up by their experience. This is especially true for humanistic matters, where perhaps it hasn’t changed as much. In any case, they shouldn’t feel obligated to give up their lives for the care of their grandchildren.

Therefore, a good plan and task distribution are essential. A plan that allows parents to organize their lives by counting on grandparents only when necessary or when they want to is very important. Although they’re grandparents, it’s them who ultimately have the right to decide how they want to perform their role.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • García Díaz, V. (2018). La implicación de los abuelos y las abuelas en las familias.
  • Guijarro, A. (2001). El síndrome de la abuela esclava. Grupo editorial universitario.
  • Maria, J., Guillén Palomares, J., & Caro Blanco, F. (2012). Abuelas cuidadoras en el siglo XXI: recurso de conciliación de la vida social y familiar.
  • Marín Rengifo, A. L., & Palacio Valencia, M. C. (2016). La crianza y el cuidado en primera infancia: un escenario familiar de inclusión de los abuelos y las abuelas. Trabajo social, (18), 159-176.
  • Pérez Ortiz, L. (2018). Las abuelas como recurso de conciliación entre la vida familiar y laboral. Presente y futuro.
  • Soldevilla Agreda, J. J. (2008). El verdadero rol de abuelo o una nueva puerta hacia la esclavitud. Gerokomos, 19(3), 113-114.
  • Triadó, C., Villar, F., Solé, C., Celdrán, M., Pinazo, S., Conde, L., & Montoro-Rodríguez, J. (2008). Las abuelas/os cuidadores de sus nietos/as: tareas de cuidado, beneficios y dificultades del rol. International Journal of Developmental and Educational Psychology4(1), 455-464.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.