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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Rising Phenomenon

The number of grandparents raising grandchildren is on the rise. They face emotional, economic, social, financial, and legal challenges at a time when their parenting days seemed to be over. 

The sound of the baby crying brings the older woman up from a deep sleep. Tonight the baby is teething and restless, and the baby’s mother has bronchitis as well, so Granny is taking the night shift. She gets up, picks up her grandson, and works on warming the bottle. Looking at the clock, she notes that there is just another hour or so until it is time to get up. Granny snuggles into the couch with the baby, treasuring the quiet moments until the new day begins, knowing that sleep is over for the night. 

This scenario and others like it are played out daily by more than 2.7 million grandparents in the United States who are either the sole caregivers, or are part of a multigenerational household where they play a participatory caregiver role (Kelley, Whitley, and Campos 2010, Watkins 2006). The U.S. Census Bureau (2010) reports that 7.5 million (10 percent) of children in the United States live with their grandparent(s). This living arrangement is defined by Tremblay et al. (2014) as kinship care—“care provided for children by relatives other than their parents.”

Chen and Liu (2012) discussed various roles of grandparents that range from uninvolved, to occasional babysitting, to living with children and their families, and finally full-time custodial care. Around the world, grandparents are becoming more integral to family life, and they are filling more of these family functions in response to marital instability and broader demographic shifts of their own adult children. This is a substantial shift from the traditional role of grandparents, that of “pleasure without responsibility” (Backhouse and Graham 2011). 

The change in family structure and function over the past thirty years has given rise to a new type of family headed by grandparents. These “grandfamilies” (AARP n.d.) have emerged as a response to issues such as parental drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration,
mental health problems, HIV/AIDS, child abuse and neglect, military deployment, as well
as death of the parents. There is a trend by welfare authorities towards placing at-risk children into kinship care rather than foster care (Backhouse and Graham 2011).

While grandparents face significant challenges, there are rewards as well. These include the concept of staying young, feeling needed, staying active, presenting a second chance at parenting and a new lease on life. For the children, the benefits include safety and
security as well as a sense of stability for the first time in their lives (Backhouse and Graham 2011). Additionally, today’s grandparents face the reality of bringing up a new generation where the cultural norms and values are quite different. This article will review several of the challenges and rewards of raising grandchildren, including financial, physical and emotional health, legal, housing and accommodations, social, and support.

Grandparent Demographics 
The alarm clock rings signaling the beginning of another day. Time to get the children breakfast, lunches packed, and ready for school. In the meantime, the grandmother
is checking her calendar for a schedule of the day’s work meetings, after-school obligations, and what will be for dinner. The children have been with her a while now, and this routine has become her daily schedule—incorporating their needs into her lifestyle. It seemed easier when she was younger and these were her children, but, having some coffee, she realizes she will persevere. 

Weaver (2013) reported that modern American grandparents look forward to enjoying their grandchildren without losing their ability to retain their autonomy since they have raised their own children. Cultural differences are significant in how the role of
grandparents is viewed. These include perception of mentors for younger parents, and the transmitters of traditions, cultural values, and heritage.

What is the picture of typical grandparents who are raising their grandchildren today? In 2010, for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau (2010) included questions about grandparental caregiving (Tremblay et al. 2014). As a result, statistics show that seven million grandparents reported grandchildren living with them, and of those, 2.7 million were responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren under the age of eighteen. Of this number, 51 percent were white, 22 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. The majority of the reporting grandparents (1.7 million) were women who compose 77 percent of custodial grandparents (2010, Weaver 2013). The 1.7
million grandparents responsible for grandchildren remained in the labor force, and 670,000 disabled grandparents were responsible for grandchildren. Finally, 55 percent reported doing so for three or more years, a factor most common in black grandparent caregivers. 

The U.S. Census Bureau (2010) reported that while there were 2.2 million grandparents raising grandchildren who were at or above the poverty level, there remained 580,000 grandparents doing so with income levels at or below the poverty level. The median income for families with grandparent householders responsible for grandchildren under eighteen years of age was $45,000. Among these, in those households where the parent was absent, the median income dropped to $33,000 “Compared with traditional grandparents, custodial grandparents are 60 percent more likely to be living below the poverty threshold” (Weaver 2013).

Parent/Grandparent/Family Relationship Issues
When grandparents step in to care for children, it is usually the result of a family crisis. Examples of crisis situations including increasing numbers of “unmarried teen mothers, a high divorce rate, epidemics of HIV/AIDS, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and illegal drug use
(especially methamphetamine) leave many children orphaned with parents unable to care for them (Tremblay et al. 2014).

Harnett, Dawe, and Russell (2012) supported that the placement of children within kinship relationships is preferred over the foster care system. These benefits included “lower levels of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, and greater competence in adaptive behaviors”. In addition, children in kinship arrangements tended to fare better in education and achieving career outcomes than those in foster care.

The challenges created by this need can be significant as in many cases the grandparents are working to deal with the needs of the grandchildren while still providing assistance to their adult children. The stress created by assuming responsibility of grandchildren can produce sadness, frustration, grief, or worry as they attempt to balance the need to care and protect their grandchildren while still attempting, when possible, to retain a relationship with their own children. Backhouse and Graham (2011) indicated additional worries involve the future of the grandchildren, making sure they obtain a good education, and raising teenagers in a technological world that in some cases may
be unfamiliar to the older adults. Probably the most significant worry involves the fear of what happens when the grandparents are no longer able to care for the children.

Lines of authority within the family regarding rules for raising children may become confused, especially in multigenerational families—in essence bringing to reality the old saying “If Mom says no, ask Grandma.” Not only does this create potential confusion for the child, but may also increase tension between parents and grandparents as well. Guidelines for discipline and a plan for strategies to raise the children need to be
agreed upon and adhered to. In many cases, grandparents become the sole caregivers but in others, they may provide child care duties as part of a multigeneration household. In return, they may receive additional support as they grow older and financial security while allowing parents the ability to pursue economic or educational goals as an informal intergenerational contract (Chen and Liu 2012).

Interestingly, taking over responsibility for raising grandchildren can cause problems in other grandparent/grandchild relationships, as the grandchildren still in their homes may feel jealous or resentful of the ones living with their grandparents (Goyer 2011).

Goyer (2011) provides suggestions to reestablish norms for the children as quickly as possible. This may often require the assistance of an outside person who is able to help coordinate parental visits, and connect with proper social or legal experts. CSAs and other
professional advisors should be able to assist their clients in finding the necessary resources. 

Financial Issues
Financial challenges for grandparents raising grandchildren have been widely documented despite the ability, in many cases, to obtain some financial assistance for the children through state or federal government programs. Those grandparents who are retired
and raising young grandchildren are finding it necessary to return to work to supplement needed income. When this is not possible, those on limited incomes realize an ongoing struggle to provide financial security for the needs of their grandchildren (Backhouse
and Graham 2011). Financial strain may become more significant as the children grow older due to increased costs for clothes, shoes, school, sports, and other activities.

Overall, according to Weaver (2013), older adults comprise a larger part of the workforce than previously, in part due to the reduction of the average age of a first-time grandparent to forty-eight rather than the previous age range of sixty to seventy. If these older adults choose or need to leave the workforce to provide custodial or even participatory care, future financial considerations need to be considered as formal earnings cease. There are impacts on Social Security as well as continued contribution to 401K plans to be considered. It is important for them to sit down with financial advisors to thoroughly review and understand their situation and create a plan that incorporates all of the variables. Additionally, for grandparents providing after-school or all-day care, the parents are generally the ones who benefit the most in child-care savings while grandparents sacrifice future and present income. 

Grandparents who are still employed may need to make adjustments in order to maintain their positions, or find that they need to find work based on their new situations. For those in professional careers, it may be necessary to locate external options for day care including evening hours. Those needing to find work, should check with the Senior Community Service Employment Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor Training and Employment Administration, which works with museums, senior centers, national parks, and others, and provides assistance as well as job training (Goyer 2011).

Stress/Health /Social Issues
Important concerns raised by older grandparents when taking on the responsibility of grandchildren include those associated with limited physical and/or emotional health, inability to control their family circumstances, the loss of status within the community, as
well as an increased sense of frustration and anxiety over the loss of support and resources (Backhouse and Graham 2012, Whitley, Kelley, and Campos 2011). Harnett et al. (2009) also reported that there is distress relating to trauma and grief resulting from their own children’s inability to care for the grandchildren due to negative consequences.

Conversely, emotional rewards and healthier lifestyles for some older grandparents can result from increased activity in an effort to provide a healthier environment for the children. However, the stress encountered dealing with the parents of the children, the
child welfare authorities, and legal system can be overwhelming and in many situations can outweigh the benefits. While several studies have reported inconclusive results regarding well-being of grandparents with increased stress levels and deteriorating health conditions, others report that the grandparent and grandchild relationship constitutes an important element of the social support network of the older adult (Chen and Liu 2012).

Backhouse and Graham (2012) reported that the loss of the traditional grandparent role, which has been one of respected social identity, may result in a complex variety of experiences including sadness, disappointment, and grief which are simultaneously
bound with a sense of injustice in the loss of their traditional role and return to one of parenting. Despite the conflicts and challenges, this qualitative study demonstrated that grandparents-as-parents are committed emotionally, financially, and morally to the welfare of their grandchildren, and will care for them regardless of whether or not they are financially or socially supported.

Legal Issues
Older adults seeking legal custody of grandchildren encounter multiple barriers. Needs of the children can seem overwhelming, especially when the change of custody is unexpected. If grandchildren are going to be living with the grandparent(s) for an extended period of time, it is important to learn about the laws affecting people who are raising them. 

First and foremost, in order to register children for school and take care of medical needs, it is necessary to have legal custody. To do this, when at all possible, the best way is to create a written consent arrangement with the parents. CSAs and other professionals
can assist by referring grandparents to the proper legal advisor to verify the presence of consent laws in the individual states. While consent laws do not reassign custody, they allow the parents to sign a form giving grandparents the right to conduct these types of business without going to court (Bales 2009).

Depending on a state’s laws, there are three ways to obtain legal custody:

1. A custody order issued by the judge (Bales 2009). Here the grandparent assumes day-to-day responsibility but the parents retain a legal relationship with the children and could request to resume custody at a later date.

2. Legal guardianship. While this is similar to the custody order, it is usually granted by the probate court and presents several different requirements. 

3. Adoption. This is a permanent arrangement, and the relationship between the parents and grandchildren comes to an end (Bales 2009). 

In any case, if it becomes necessary to go to court for custody or guardianship of the grandchildren, and the parents are still in the picture but currently unable to provide care, it is important to ask the court to establish a set visitation schedule, supervised if needed, to ensure that children have an ongoing relationship with their parents (Goyer 2011).

If the parent has been incarcerated, cutting off visitation can create feelings of grief and loss in the child and the grandparent as well. While it is not always wise to require children to visit, there are special programs to help parents who are incarcerated to stay
in contact with their children. In all legal situations, the advice and guidance of a qualified attorney is crucially important. CSAs and other professional advisors should refer their clients to a lawyer with training and experience in child custody matters, and one who will effectively represent the best interests of the grandparents and the grandchildren. 

Important to remember is that when all is said and done, your clients are still the grandparents who are having a totally different experience than raising their own children. The experience of grandparenting is vastly heterogeneous based on living arrangements, intensity of care, and variations in individual and contextual

Advisors should remember that raising grandchildren is not the same as occasional babysitting or temporary care. The needs of the children come first and the best arrangement, in the long run, is the one that works best for them without putting significant strain on the grandparents. •CSA

Susan Miedzianowski is a faculty member for SCSA and chair of the CSA Journal editorial board. With more than forty years in the health care industry, she is an assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Phoenix, Detroit campus, and teaches online courses at several universities. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s degree in health care administration, and a Ph.D. in human services. Contact her at

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: A Rising Phenomenon was recently published in the Fall 2014 edition of the CSA Journal.

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors