When we think of “encore careers” for elderly people we usually do not think of encore parenting. Yet The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that more and more children in the United States are being cared for and reside with a grandparent or grandparents. The reasons for this include teen pregnancy, adult incarcerations, high divorce rates, and substance abuse. These situations cause children to be displaced from their biological parents, and the responsibility of raising them often falls to their grandparents. Some 2.4 million Americans, in fact, are grandparents caring for children, most of them for a year or more, which could mean up to 3.9 million children are being raised by their grandparents in the U.S. alone. Not all of these custodial grandparents are “seniors” but some of them are, and and they now face years of “encore” childrearing after they have raised their own children.
How does this impact senior living?
Many seniors are in the midst of slowing down their lives—retiring, traveling, taking up hobbies, catching up on recreational time, and solidifying their financial assets. The sudden addition of a child often interrupts this process. For some, there is no significant hardship; wealthy seniors will find that childrearing is expensive, but not prohibitively so. However, many of the reasons for having to raise a grandchild are closely associated with poverty, meaning that many of these seniors do not have extra funds to retire and also raise children.
The emotional impact is not precisely known, but a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1999 found that grandparents who were raising grandchildren had lower rates of satisfaction with their health than those who were not raising grandchildren, which could be the result of the stress and the physical requirements of childrearing as well as demands on time and resources which preclude self care. This study, and others, call for more support for grandparents in this situation.
What support do custodial grandparents need?
Social workers often need to be involved in the case of a grandparent raising a grandchild in order to ensure that the needs of both the grandparents and children are being met. A senior who begins to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s, for example, should not care for young children—accidents are too likely to happen. Social workers can also help point to community and welfare programs that may help, such as Boys and Girls Clubs or meal assistance. The involvement of a social worker is not a reason to remove a child from what is termed “kinship care”, which is preferable over foster care for many children; it is a way to build a partnership and ensure that both parties are healthy.
The symptoms of poverty—poor healthcare, especially mental health care and substance abuse treatment, result in many parents being unable to take care of their children. High incarceration rates among people of color also influence this issue, since parents cannot raise children from behind bars (African Americans are twice as likely to become grandparents raising grandchildren). Poor education, especially sex education, results in higher rates of teenage pregnancies. Since teenagers are likely unable to provide for children financially and emotionally, grandparents often end up with the lion’s share of the work.
One way we can support custodial grandparents is to advocate for better, more productive welfare systems and education in our communities, and to create and support programs which help end poverty and provide health care to impoverished people, as well as seeking ways to prevent mass incarceration in the young adult population of people of color.
Seniors who care for children are particularly at risk for experiencing stressful physical complications and life events, and as such must take regular breaks from the stress of childrearing that younger people may not need. However, custodial grandparents often find joy in their work. Raising their grandchildren, while a huge responsibility, is not lacking in the same joys of being a non-custodial grandparent. Some grandparents are more than happy to help, and society can support them by finding that same joy and not diminishing their pride in the work of childrearing.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2011).Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. No. 77. Available at http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Grandparents-Raising-Grandchildren-077.aspx. Retrieved 2/5/2016.
Kropf, Nancy P., and Wilks, Scott. (2003) Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Social Work and Health Care in an Aging Society. Berkman, Barbara, and Harootyan, Linda, eds. New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc. Available at https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=UoyAEccxDDoC&oi=fnd&pg=PA177&dq=grandparents+raising+grandchildren&ots=-HKyNjE3VP&sig=On0M13C-ARK0v5amNRYMf0__W_w#v=onepage&q=grandparents%20raising%20grandchildren&f=false. Retrieved 2/5/2016.
Minkler, M., Fuller-Thomson, E. (1999). The health of grandparents raising grandchildren: results of a national study. American Journal of Public Health, 89(9): 1384-1389. Available at http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.89.9.1384. Retrieved 2/5/2016.