The Age of Grandparents Is Made of Many Tragedies

The proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since 1970—and the reasons are often sad ones.

Edgar Su / Reuters

When Barb’s son showed up at her house with his daughter Avery, 2, on a frigid night in February, it was long past the toddler’s bedtime. So Barb (who asked me to use only first or middle names for her and her family) hustled them inside and set them both up in the guest room. The next day, Valentine’s Day, she searched Craigslist and found a used crib for her granddaughter. She thought the arrangement was temporary.

“I was probably delusional,” Barb told me over the phone recently from her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. At the time she believed her son, who had a long history of abusing drugs and alcohol, was just going through another brief bit of “drama” with his girlfriend, who had her own problems with substance abuse. But a few months later, he moved out of the guest room for good, leaving the little girl behind. That was six years ago.

Barb’s son has been granted full physical custody custody of Avery, but even though he lives nearby he hardly ever comes around. Neither does his ex-girlfriend, Avery’s mother, with whom he shares joint legal custody. So it’s been left to Barb, 68, and her husband Fran, 69, to raise their granddaughter. The only one who regularly shows up to help is their daughter, 37, who has no children of her own.

“No one expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said Barb, a former teacher. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.” But she’s not complaining. Sure, she can’t travel as much as she’d hoped to, and she has no social life; all activities revolve around Avery, now 8, and the other kids’ mothers aren’t really friend material for Barb. But she gets great joy from being with her granddaughter. “I really think of her as my third child,” she told me. This time around, though, “I have learned not to sweat the small stuff,” she said. She doesn’t stress out about Avery’s test scores, or about the “little-girl drama” of third-grade cliques. Instead, she focuses on giving Avery love, stability, and the skills to fight her own battles.

More grandparents than ever are being put in a position like Barb and Fran—becoming full-time parents again, often with fewer resources and more health problems than they had the first time around. The arrangement is not new, of course—people raised by grandparents for at least part of their childhood include Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, and two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—but it’s more common than ever these days. (The Greek god Zeus was raised by his grandmother, too, though that was really the least she could do: Her son, Cronus, threatened to swallow the child whole.) The proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and has gone up 7 percent in the past five years alone—an increase many attribute to the opioid epidemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3 percent of children nationwide live apart from their parents, and of those, nearly two-thirds are being raised by grandparents. Some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, either because of a temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or, as in Barb and Fran’s case, substance abuse.

Raising grandchildren can take a toll on grandparents: higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion, loneliness, and isolation; a sense of having too little privacy, and too little time to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members. There’s a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren, and more than 40 percent report having economic or social-service needs—for themselves or, more often, their grandchildren—that are unmet.

The grandparents might be struggling with complicated feelings about their own child’s shortcomings as a parent, too, which stirs up an unsettling mixture of disappointment, embarrassment, anger, and resentment. They might be grieving for a child who either died or simply walked away, and for the vision they once had of a simple, ordinary, fun-with-the-grandkids kind of grandparenthood.

Still, there are unexpected rewards. Some grandparents say they feel younger because of being involved again in the day-to-day lives of children, running to after-school activities, or reading Harry Potter and teen magazines to keep current. They also have a renewed sense of purpose, at just the time of life when their age-mates report feeling less and less necessary. The kids can benefit, too; according to some studies, children raised by their grandparents have fewer behavioral problems than those who end up in foster care with non-relatives, though perhaps there was something that set apart those kids and families in the first place.

Yet even while grandparents offer stability and consistency to children whose previous lives might have been chaotic, grandfamilies suffer from a particular kind of precariousness. For a variety of reasons, most grandparents are not licensed foster-care providers, don’t have custody or guardianship of their grandchildren, and thus don’t have legal standing to make decisions regarding the children’s schooling, medical care, or vacation plans. “We estimate that for every one child in foster care with relatives,” said Ana Beltran, an attorney with the advocacy group Generations United, “there are 20 outside of foster care with relatives,” usually grandparents.

Why are so few grandfamilies actually licensed? For some, the idea just feels wrong. Why go through all the red tape to make it a legal relationship when these children are already family? Why invite child-welfare caseworkers and judges to monitor what’s taking place in your own home? Grandparents might balk at licensing because it means giving the child over to the legal custody of the state. Or they might worry about failing the licensing requirements in their state, which could entail strict criminal background checks that take into account nonviolent crimes committed in youth, or strict housing standards that dictate a certain number of bedrooms or a particular amount of floor space per child.

Becoming a licensed foster parent might not even be an option for everyone, Beltran said, since to be eligible for licensing, the grandchild must have come to the grandparent’s home by way of a child-welfare agency. But many grandchildren arrive the way Barb’s did—late at night, without much prior warning, dropped off by a parent who eventually leaves.

The majority of grandparents raising grandchildren, then, are left to make their way through trial and error, cobbling together financial and logistical support for the grandchildren as best they can. They live in a kind of shadow world, worried that things could shift without warning, causing their beloved grandchild to be sent back to an unsafe situation, or to be sent into non-relative foster care.

Barb has no legal standing with Avery; it’s her son who has custody, and Barb fears that his ex, Avery’s biological mother, will someday go back to court to try to get custody. One way some grandparents avoid this sense of precariousness is through a program called assisted guardianship. Created by the Fostering Connections Act of 2008, which gives all states and some Native American tribes the option to use federal child-welfare money for this purpose, assisted guardianship is a way for licensed foster grandparents to exit the foster system. They continue to receive the same monthly payments they received as foster parents for the child’s food, shelter, and clothing, plus access to support services to help meet the child’s educational and emotional challenges. But there’s no longer any need for oversight from child-welfare agencies and courts. As a result, assisted guardianships cost the state much less than non-relative foster care—$10,000 a year per child, compared to $60,000 per year for foster care, according to Beltran—and the grandparents with this arrangement have legal authority to act in their grandchild’s best interest without a case worker checking in.

But there’s a catch: Assisted guardianship is only available to grandparents or other relatives who are already licensed foster parents. That means it’s no help at all to the majority of grandfamilies. And even though it’s supposed to be available across the country, it is not. Ten years after the act was passed, only 35 states, the District of Columbia, and eight tribes offer assisted guardianships.

The arrangement of grandparents raising grandchildren is precarious in another way, too: The grandparents are older and sicker than typical parents, and more likely to die before the children they’re raising reach adulthood. (But they’re not as old as many might suspect: About 61 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren are younger than age 60.) Barb, for instance, has rheumatoid arthritis that flared up recently, and she started aggressive therapy in hopes of staving off symptoms while Avery still needs her. “I hope I can stay healthy enough to at least get her through the next couple of years,” she told me. “I’m not anxious to do the teenage years again. But I know that, as close as we are, [the early teens] might really be a hard age for her to handle losing one of us.”

Avery sometimes looks at Barb and says, “Why are you so old, Grandmom?” Buried in that question is her fear of being abandoned again. Barb talks about the scene in The Lion King when Simba’s father tells him that if he ever feels alone, he should look up at the stars and talk to his dead ancestors. “I tell her, ‘You know, you can do that if something happens to me,’” Barb said. “I tell her, ‘As long as I’m in your heart and your head, I’ll be there, and I’ll listen.’” She doesn’t really believe she’ll be up in the sky listening, but she thinks it’s the kind of comforting thought that an 8-year-old deserves.