Families in Psychiatry

Grandmothers, the Friendship Bench, and wisdom

Is this model a blueprint for delivering mental health care?


The 4-year-old boy and his grandmother are out for stroll around the neighborhood, walking hand in hand.

“Let’s sit on the bench and talk,” the boy says.

“Okay,” says the grandmother and they climb up onto the high bench and look out across the quiet road to a small garden beyond.

“What would you like to talk about?” his grandmother asks.

“You first,” he says.

“Okay, let’s see ... the grandmother and the grandson are out for a walk and they see a bench to sit on. They climb up and look around. They see the daffodils and the white clouds in the blue sky. The breeze is blowing gently. It is a happy day. Your turn; what would you like to talk about?”

“Nanna and Papa.”

“Do you miss Papa?”


“It has been a whole year since he died.”

“A long, long time.”

“He loved you very much.”

“Yes,” the boy replies.

“Nanna must miss him very much. She must be lonely without him.”

The boy nods.

They sit on for a while, watching the occasional car and the occasional bird pass by. The boy and the grandmother are quiet and contemplative.

“Okay, let’s go,” he says and jumps down, ready to continue their walk.

The Friendship Bench

It must have been such an experience that gave Dixon Chibanda, MD, MPH, PhD, a psychiatrist from Zimbabwe, his brilliant idea. He trained grandmothers in evidence-based talk therapy and sat them on a bench in the park with his patients.1,2 He founded the Friendship Bench in 2006 in the Harare township of Mbare with 14 grandmothers. There are more than 300 grandmothers sitting on benches, listening, and providing cognitive-behavioral therapy–informed interventions because he could find no therapists in the community and he found that, with a little training, these grandmothers could provide effective culturally sensitive interventions.

Originally, the sessions were conducted in Shona, the predominant native language in Zimbabwe, but since 2017, the sessions are also in English. By 2017, the Friendship Bench had helped more than 30,000 people. The method has been empirically vetted and expanded to countries beyond, including the United States. Dr. Chibanda’s Friendship Bench serves as a blueprint for any community interested in bringing affordable, accessible, and highly effective mental health services to its residents. Dr. Chibanda said: “Imagine if we could create a global network of grandmothers in every major city in the world.”3The Friendship Bench is also used with other illnesses, such as HIV, to improve medication compliance.4 Participants in this study reported that the Friendship Bench had a critical role in helping them accept their HIV status, citing the grandmothers’ empathic attitude, their normalization of the reality of living with HIV, and their encouragement of young people to socialize with peers and be free of guilt. Many recipients also described enhanced health and well-being.

Why grandmothers?

Have you heard of the evolutionary importance of grandmothers? The grandmother hypothesis is an adaptationist explanation for the fact that the human female lifespan extends beyond the period of fertility. A third of the average human female life span is post menopause. Does such a long female postreproductive life span have a reason, inquired Mwenza Blell, PhD.5

Peter B. Medawar, PhD,6 and Kristen Hawkes, PhD,7 suggested that grandparents influence their own fitness by their actions toward their grandchildren. International fieldwork has revealed that the situation is less clear than their hypothesis. In industrialized countries, grandmaternal support is often financial or emotional. Two meta-analyses of largely the same group of studies investigating grandmother effects have come up with differing conclusions. Rebecca Sear, PhD, and Ruth Mace, PhD, conclude that grandmothers are “almost universally” beneficial, while acknowledging some variation in the effects of paternal grandmothers.8 Maternal grandparents appear to invest more in their grandchildren than paternal grandparents. Beverly I. Strassmann, PhD, and Wendy M. Garrard, PhD, concluded that, in patrilineal societies, survival of maternal grandparents is associated with survival of grandchildren and suggest this may represent covert matriliny.9

Examining specific time periods, maternal grandmothers may have greatest effect on survival of grandchildren at the time of weaning, a time when increased pathogenic exposure is a threat to survival. Paternal grandmothers may influence the survival of grandchildren during the early period of life (1-12 months) and to influence the condition of their daughters-in-law during pregnancy. The fact that grandmothers share one X chromosome with their sons’ daughters, none with their sons’ sons, and have a 50% chance of sharing an X chromosome with their daughters’ children is suggested to explain the patterns of survival observed in these studies than a simple maternal/paternal division.

Dr. Alison Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison Heru

In low- and middle-income countries, grandmothers and older women are seen as owners of traditional knowledge, and influence many decisions about childcare, help with domestic work, and emotional support and advice.10 Studies find a significant positive impact on breastfeeding when grandmothers of the infants had their own breastfeeding experience or were positively inclined toward breastfeeding, although one Chinese study found that highly educated grandmothers were associated with decreased exclusive breastfeeding.11 Despite this, most health programs target individual new mothers, without an understanding of the family and who else influences decisions.

Grandchildren and grandparents benefit from intergenerational activities with improved health and well-being of both generations. When older adults are involved in raising children, there is a significant reduction in the incidence of behavioral problems in childhood and adolescence. Grandparents improve grandchild outcomes, when measured by coresidence, caregiving, financial, and other support. The grandchild outcomes include physical health, socioemotional well-being, and cognitive development.12

Are there ‘grandparent genes?’

Flavio Schwarz, PhD, and colleagues think that variants of APOE and CD33 protect against heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, allowing older people to live longer with better functioning hearts and brains – thus enabling transfer of wisdom from older to younger generations.13 While this logic may be a bit of a stretch, it does lead to a more interesting question: What has wisdom got to do with it?

When I ask psychiatrists what they think about wisdom, they give a variety of answers. Dilip Jeste, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist who studies successful aging, helped develop a measurable vision of wisdom.14 Wisdom is defined as a “multidimensional human trait that includes good social decision-making and pragmatic knowledge of life, prosocial attitudes and behaviors such as empathy and compassion, emotional homeostasis with a tendency to favor positive emotions, reflection and self-understanding, acknowledgment of and coping effectively with uncertainty, and decisiveness.”15 Others suggest that they include spirituality, openness to new experience, and a sense of humor.16 A scale called the San Diego Wisdom scale (SD-WISE) was created, using 524 community-dwelling adults aged 25-104 years. These subjects comprised a high proportion of White adults and individuals with a higher education, thus lacking diversity. Lack of diversity perpetuates generalizations, and like all sociocultural constructs, truth is specific to the population studied. High scores on the SD-WISE are positively correlated with good mental health, self-ratings of successful aging, mastery, resilience, happiness, and satisfaction with life.

Which brings us back to the grandmothers on the bench: Can someone please give them the SD-WISE scale and confirm several hypotheses? I would like to know whether a pragmatic knowledge of life is a recognized grandmotherly quality, suitable for the bench.

Dr. Heru is professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. She is editor of “Working With Families in Medical Settings: A Multidisciplinary Guide for Psychiatrists and Other Health Professionals” (New York: Routledge, 2013). She has no conflicts of interest.


1. Chibanda D. Bull World Health Organ. 2018 Jun 196(6):376-7.

2. Cavanaugh R. Lancet Psychiatry. 2017 Nov. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30420-0.

3. Nuwer R. “How a bench and a team of grandmothers can tackle depression.” BBC. 2020 May 27.

4. Ouansafi I et al. PLoS One. 2021 Apr 22;16(4):e0250074.

5. Blell M. “Grandmother hypothesis, grandmother effect, and residence patterns.” Int Encyclopedia Anthropol. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

6. Medawar PB. An Unsolved Problem of Biology. Routledge, 1957.

7. Hawkes K et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci. 1998 Feb 395(3):1336-9.

8. Sear R and Mace R. Evol Hum Behav. 2008;29(1):1-18.

9. Strassmann B and Garrard WM. Hum Nat. 2011 Jul;22(1-2):201-22.

10. Aubel J. BMJ Glob Health. 2021;6(2). doi 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-003808.

11. Negin J et al. BMJ Pregnancy Childbirth. 2016 Apr 7. doi: 10.1186/s12884-016-0880-5.

12. Sadruddin AFA. Soc Sci Med. 2019 Aug;239(4):112476.

13. Schwarz F et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci. 2016 Jan 5;113(1):74-9.

14. Jeste DV et al. Psychol Inquiry. 2020 Jun 22;31(2):134-43.

15. Meeks TW and Jeste DV. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 Apr;66(4):355-65.

16. Bangen KJ et al. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2013 Dec;21(12):1254-66.

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