Grandparents as Primary Caregivers

An increasing number of American grandparents who may have longed to see their grandchildren when they were infants see much more of them than they may have expected when they are children.   Instead of the golden years punctuated by occasional visits from children and grandchildren, many grandparents now find themselves as parents of their own grandchildren.

Many more grandparents serve as primary caregivers to children because the number of grandparents caring for children surged during the economic downturn amid financial woes. On top of that, military service and other causes have also contributed to the need. This trend has evolved from a variety of family circumstances. Fractured families — divorced and step parents, teen pregnancy, abusive home life, parental imprisonment, parental drug addiction, or mental illness of a parent, death of one or more parents and even abandonment by parents – all have come together to gave grandparents a second chance a parenting.

Presently, over 3.9 million children live with their grandparents. Over one-third (1.4 million) do so without their own parents living with them. Of the grandparents who maintain homes for their grandchildren, 55 percent of grandmothers and 47 percent of grandfathers are not yet age 55. Additionally, 19 percent of grandmothers and 15 percent of grandfathers are under age 45.

An afternoon with the grandkids in the park or at a ball game may be fun for both grandparents and the grandkids, but when grandparents face full time parenting they my also feel stress and worry, anger and resentment, guilt and grief.

As American parents have grappled with financial peril and other woes over the last decade, grandparents have stepped in to help. Experts believe parents are leaning on their elders as financial problems linger past the recession.

Grandparents were the main caregivers for more than 3 million children in 2011 — a 20% increase from the turn of the millennium, the Pew Research Center has reported. The numbers surged during the economic downturn but have leveled off in its aftermath, Pew said in a report based on an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Sixty percent of those children still have at least one parent at home, but grandparents are responsible for most of their needs.

“The parent gets laid off, or their home is foreclosed upon. They can’t afford the mortgage or rent,” says Susan Smith of the nonprofit Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Often “the quickest solution is, ‘Mom, Dad, can you help out?’ ” With the “jobless recovery,” Smith says, that help is still needed.

But money is just one of many problems that push grandparents into care giving. Nearly half of parents who lived with their kids but left grandparents in charge were teens when their babies were born, Pew found. Other parents handed off children to grandparents when they went to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, says Amy Goyer, home and family expert for AARP. Still others lost or relinquished their kids after tangling with drugs or alcoholism, suffering mental illness or landing in prison.

Many grandparents struggle to provide stable environments for grandchildren who have experienced a variety of family dislocation and troubles. Grandparents can stabilize a wide range of support to children and grandchildren in times of crisis. Grandparents bolster their children in the parent role through encouragement structural and emotional support.

However, grandparents who take on this responsibility often need help meeting the needs of their grandchildren and with the legal, financial, medical, educational, and emotional issues that come with this new role. As a grandparent, facing the prospect of caring full-time or even part-time for grandkids can be quite a daunting task. It is extremely important that the grandparent prepares themselves and their family as much as possible for the challenges ahead.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Grandparent Information Center offers information about grandparent support groups and other resources in communities across the country. Local Department of Social Services, Foster Care, Adoption, or Family Service Agencies may also be of assistance. The AARP Grandparent Information Center was established in September 1993 in Washington, DC. The Center was created to provide grandparents raising their grandchildren with a place to call or write to when seeking assistance. You may contact the center at (202) 434 2296 weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

More than a fifth of grandparents who care for grandchildren live under the poverty line, Pew found — more than twice the overall poverty rate among Americans ages 50 and over. The financial challenges appear especially stark for grandparents raising grandchildren alone: In California, nearly half of custodial grandparents ages 65 and over did not make enough money to cover the basics for themselves and their grandchildren, a recent UCLA study found. Federal and state aid is sometimes out of reach, the report said.

“You may have set aside a retirement for you and your husband — and now you have to spend your savings on feeding and clothing young children,” said Sylvie de Toledo, founder of the nonprofit Grandparents As Parents and author of a survival guide with the same name.

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