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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

An increasing number of grandparents are navigating the hurdles, both emotional and financial, of caring for grandchildren.

The percentage of children living with grandparents in the U.S. has doubled since 1970. The reasons for this shift are often tragic. Grandparents can struggle to cope with the enormous responsibility of raising one or more grandchildren. The mental stress on both parties is a substantial factor in each individual’s well-being. Additionally, many affected households are low income.

How did this increase come about? Certainly, one element has been the opioid crisis. Every day, 130 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids. This national epidemic leaves behind children with no parent to care for them, either because the custodial parent has died or substance abuse has rendered parents incapable of caring for offspring. The 2007-2009 recession was another contributing factor as parents lost homes, jobs and savings in one fell swoop. Children can end up living with grandparents because of circumstances such as death, divorce, incarceration or mental illness. The situation may also be temporary, such as while a parent is deployed or jobless.

Financial Assistance for Grandfamilies

Oftentimes, grandparents with a new child to care for could use some financial assistance. Besides becoming a foster parent as we addressed previously, there are other avenues to seek financial help.

Low-income families may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If the child’s parents have passed away, assistance may be available through Social Security. Medicaid may be available to cover health care costs, including dentistry. Review your state’s options here. Be sure to check both federal and local grants here for anything from getting a Christmas tree to finding a free summer camp.

Poverty is a fact of life for many custodial families. The average income is less than $20,000 for homes where only the grandmother is present, which is the case in 1 million households. In total, over one-fifth (21%) of grandparents raising grandchildren have incomes that fall below the poverty line. In addition, many of the estimated 3 million grandparents providing a home to at least one grandchild have health problems of their own.

Studies show that these grandparents have above-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health issues such as diabetes. They have feelings of exhaustion, loneliness and isolation, as well as a lack of privacy. They also report having too little time to spend with a spouse, family and friends. 

Finally, individuals in this group of grandparents may well be battling anger, resentment, disappointment and/or embarrassment regarding their child’s parental shortcomings. Many grandparents are surprised by an adult child’s abuse of their child, decision to commit a crime or choice to simply walk away from the responsibility of being a parent. If the child died, both grandparent and grandchild are grieving during the transition and long afterward. In any case, the grandparent’s vision of his or her role as stepping in here and there to babysit and play with grandkids has been shattered.

“No one expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said a former teacher whose son abandoned his 2-year-old daughter after moving in with his mother. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.” 


When a parent can’t or won’t take care of a child, grandparents must often decide whether to raise the child themselves or let the state place the child in foster care. Research shows that they choose to care for their grandchild over placement at a 25-to-1 ratio (incidentally saving taxpayers more than $6 billion per year). 

These grandparents could become licensed foster-care providers and receive a stipend, but the vast majority do not. They may not want the intrusion of caseworkers and judges monitoring what is going on in their home, or they could be averse to giving the state legal custody of the child. They may also worry that they can’t meet licensing requirements, which can involve criminal background checks of youthful indiscretions and housing standards that mandate the number of bedrooms or square footage. To even be eligible for licensing, the child must have come to the relative via a child-welfare agency, which many do not. 

This leaves the grandparents in perilous legal standing, without legal custody or guardianship. They thus have no rights when it comes to decisions regarding school, medical care or even plans for vacation. Some grandparents live in fear that one of their grandchild’s parents will take the child away. The majority of grandparents have to navigate situations like vaccinations and school enrollment by trial and error. For some, however, there is a solution.

Created in 2008, assisted guardianship gave all states and some Native American tribes the option of using federal money to allow licensed foster grandparents to exit the system while still receiving payments for the child’s food, shelter and clothing, as well as access to support services. There is no longer oversight from child-welfare agencies or the courts, saving approximately $50,000 annually per child. But the grandparent must be licensed to foster the child, and only 35 states and a handful of tribes have opted in. 

The grandchildren come with their own set of issues. They may have been born with drug dependence, or started life in a home with abuse, drug use and/or neglect. The trauma of switching homes is a further impact, and physical, emotional and behavioral issues are unsurprisingly common. There are places grandparents can turn to for help.


AARP has prepared a comprehensive guide on how to navigate the addition of an unexpected grandchild to a family. Check out the basic things you need to know to find out who you need to talk to and what documents to gather together. The page walks you through what to do and how to keep organized while you’re doing it. After all, there are a lot of moving pieces to having responsibility for a child.

Next, visit the AARP page for Grandfamilies Resources. You can find legal support, a guide to work issues and more. Sixty and Me has a guide listing resources that is equally helpful. You can find an online support group, mental health resources and more. 

Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren need support, patience and understanding from the whole community as they navigate choppy waters without a map of what may lie ahead. Trained professionals can suggest support groups for them and therapy for the children, if needed, to ease this difficult transition. 

Click below for the other articles in the December 2019 Senior Spirit


Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors

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