There’s a humorous old saying among grandparents: “If I had known how much fun grandkids were, I would have had them first!” This reflects the fact that grandparents enjoy many of the joys of having small children in their lives—with far fewer responsibilities.
But for some grandparents, this is not the case. We hear a lot about the Sandwich Generation—people who are not only caring for their children, but also are providing care for senior loved ones. We know that these caregivers are often busy and stressed. Yet few people are aware of another population of caregivers: According to Generations United, today 7.8 million American children live with grandparents, and 2.7 million grandparents are the primary caregiver for their grandchildren.
Grandparents may end up serving as the primary parent for their grandchildren when the children’s parents are deceased, or are unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility, due to military deployment, substance abuse, incarceration, or mental illness. Generations United reports that grandparent-headed households are profoundly underserved, and calls for improved support services.
“Children belong in families. When they cannot remain with their parents, the comfort of a grandparent, aunt or cousin eases the trauma of separation,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “Compared to children in non-relative care, children being raised by relatives do better. They have more stability, are more likely to maintain connections with brothers and sisters and preserve their cultural heritage and community bonds. Supportive policies help give caregivers the tools they need to ensure children thrive.”
Raising small children when you’re older can be physically challenging. Grandparents may experience conflict with the children’s parents. Their careers can be impacted, and they face financial hardship. The children many have emotional and behavior challenges stemming from separation issues.
University of Washington Professor LaShawnDa Pittman studied a group of Chicago grandmothers, and released her findings in a recent issue of The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. Pittman reported that two-thirds of grandmother-headed households live at or below the federal poverty line, and often aren’t eligible for or aren’t able to access the services that could help them. “They fell through the cracks in ways that have real ramifications for them,” said Pittman.
Complicating the picture, financial and legal assistance to support these families often comes from both ends—senior service and child welfare services. Fortunately, some states are addressing this growing population through kinship navigator programs to help grandparents work through the complexities of accessing information and services to support themselves and their grandchildren.
Pittman found that the grandmothers she studied were resilient and determined. She reports, “Even though raising their grandchildren is really hard, they wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the big things I heard was ‘My grandbaby won’t end up in the system. If that means I’ve got to make these kind of sacrifices, that’s just what it’s going to be.’”
These grandparents do a world of good for their beloved grandchildren—and, according to Generations United, save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year by keeping children out of foster care. It’s time to advocate for the needs of these families who model the powerful benefits of love.
For More Information
Read Dr. Pittman’s study here.
Find a director of kinship navigator programs here.
Visit the Generations United website (www.gu.org) to find much more information about grandfamilies.