Sunday, September 4th was officially Grandparents Day, a tribute to all older adults who share their lives with younger generations. Grandparenting involves many different roles including that of friend, mentor, disciplinarian, banker, babysitter, mediator, teacher, cheerleader, and sometimes parent. These roles are influenced by factors such as family structure, historical relationships within the family unit, and geography; as well as characteristics of individual family members such as finances, health, job responsibilities, and personality.
Government data from census reports indicates that changes in grandparent/grandchild relationships have occurred during the course of the last fifty years. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, grandparents and grandchildren often shared longer social visits together during holidays and summers. The 1990’s to 2000’s found more grandparents living closer to or in the same household as their grandchildren and taking a more active role in providing intermittent child care or raising their grandchildren. The 2012 American Community Survey estimated that there were 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. who had primary responsibility for raising grandchildren under the age of 18 who were living with them. Of these grandparents, 39% had been providing this care for five or more years.
While older adults are generally healthier and living longer than they have in the past, raising grandchildren presents some new challenges that these grandparents may not have faced when raising their own children. Since these challenges impact both the family unit and society as a whole, an understanding of these challenges is essential for both personal and public policy decision-making.
Legal matters are a primary concern for grandparents who are responsible for their grandchildren. Health care providers, schools, government agencies, and other organizations may request to see documentation of the authority to act on behalf of a child. This authority may be obtained through legal custody, guardianship, or adoption of the child, all of which are complicated and sensitive family issues.
Financial commitments are another challenge, since the most recent estimates on raising a child born in 2013 to age 18 are $245,340 for middle income families and $176,550 for low income families (U.S. Department of Agriculture). Many grandparents who are retired are on fixed incomes, and child support from the parents may not be available. The financial burden is even more pronounced when one considers that there is only one grandparent present in about 50% of the households where a grandparent is living with a grandchild and no parent. 75% of grandchildren who are living with only a grandmother are in households receiving public assistance (U.S. Census Bureau).
Health concerns, both physical and emotional, also contribute to the dynamics of raising a child. Older adults who are less physically active or who have one or more chronic diseases may have difficulty mustering the energy to keep up with a younger child on a daily basis. Generational differences will influence emotional responses by grandparents and older children to daily life situations. In addition, some children may have more demanding emotional needs if parental marital issues, illness, death, or abuse situations are the reason behind a grandparent’s responsibility for the child.
Supportive services are available to provide guidance for families with grandparents raising grandchildren who are experiencing these and other challenges. Involvement with these organizations can lead to happier and healthier relationships within these multigenerational families. For more information contact:
- Generations United: www.gu.org
- Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance: 1-800-448-4906
- Brookdale Foundation Group – Relatives As Parents Program: www.brookdalefoundation.net (a list of additional links to national and state resources is available on this website).
Karen Kaslow, RN