When I arrived at Rosa’s house, she was making popcorn for her two grandsons, ages 8 and 6. The kids greeted me, then happily took their snack out to the backyard. Rosa sighed. “How is it going? I asked. Rosa has been raising the boys since their parents lost custody due to drug abuse. “It’s fine and it’s hard”, she said. Rosa is 69. “I was looking forward to retirement. This isn’t really what I had in mind. Don’t get me wrong. I love the kids. It’s just that I don’t have the energy I had when my own kids were young.”
If you are now raising your children’s children, you are not at all alone. Like Rosa, you are now one of some 7million grandparents raising or helping raise grandchildren in the U.S. The situation has become common enough that there is even a name for it: Grandfamilies.
One in 10 American children (75 million kids) are living in a household with at least one grandparent. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 10 percent of all grandparents in the nation are raising their grandkids. Almost 3 million grandparents aren’t just helping – they are stepping in to be surrogate parents, doing the primary job of taking care of their grandchildren.
The reasons are many. With daycare often expensive and hard to find, grandparents provide daycare so parents can work. Sadly, the death of one or both parents sometimes causes the grandparents to step in full time. More often, the middle generation, the parents of the children, are incapable of caring for their kids. Addiction (including the opioid epidemic), mental illness, or chronic medical illness make it all they can do to take care of themselves. In addition, the military deployment of mothers and an increase in the number of women who are incarcerated has created more of these Grandfamilies. Still other biological parents are simply too irresponsible or too immature to take on the tasks of parenting. They abandon their kids to their own parents in order to stay children themselves.
Whatever the reason, grandparents who return to parenting find it isn’t easy. Energy and income may be lower. Health may be more fragile. Adjusting to the schedules and the needs of children and teens can be overwhelming. How do people do it?
6 Ways to Succeed as a Grandfamily
Grandparents who manage the return to parenting are grandparents who don’t just let life happen to them. They actively work on making their Grandfamily work. Here are the basics:
1. Embrace your new reality. There’s a famous saying by John Lennon: ““Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Parenting again may not have been on the top of your list for how to spend your senior years. But life often has a way of taking unexpected turns. Our choice – and yes, we do have a choice – is to either resent it or to find the joy in it. There is usually much joy to be found. Kids can keep us young. Sharing their interests and their current passions can keep us in the know about popular culture. Just when some seniors are wondering “Is this all there is”, Grandfamily adults find new meaning in raising their grandkids.
2. Acknowledge the losses. Losses are often multiple. Whether providing full or part time care, you are giving up many of your plans and your flexibility to do the things you wanted to do. If you have assumed the parenting role because your adult child has significant problems or has abandoned the children, you are also confronting the loss of your idea of the child you thought you had or hoped they would become.
The children are also grieving. Regardless of their age and no matter how they were treated, children whose parents have dropped out of their lives often long for their parents to come back to take care of them.
Grandfamilies succeed when the adults are compassionate with themselves and the children. They allow space for talking about feelings and know how to gently guide conversations to the love children do have while acknowledging their reality. When kids act up, they see the hurt inside and help the children find more appropriate ways to express their grief.
3. Take care of yourself. Even if you are as healthy as someone 10 years younger, you are still older than the average parent. Do what you can to take care of your health. Eat well. Get enough sleep. Get what exercise you can. You will feel better and you will be better able to keep up with the young ones.
4. Take care of your mental health too. Grandparents raising kids often experience anxiety and depression due to the added stress. 40% of the grandmothers studied in one study had signs of psychological distress. To stay mentally healthy, reach out for information and support. Many social service agencies are now offering Grandparent Support Groups. If you find that you are feeling more anxious or down than you used to, do consider seeing a therapist.
5. Accept that times have changed. My friend, Amy, was surprised that the parents in her neighborhood drive their kids to school when it is only ¼ mile away. Her own kids had walked to that same school. But many parents today wouldn’t dream of letting their children walk unaccompanied that far. Is it less safe these days? Maybe. Maybe not. But in many places, children aren’t allowed to be out of a parent’s sight. If other parents were to be comfortable allowing their children to play with hers, Amy needed to conform to the safety standards of her neighbors.
Accepted and acceptable methods of disciplining kids also may have changed since the first time you were parenting. If in doubt, talk to the school guidance counselor or ask the young parents of your grandkids’ friends for information and support.
6. Find resources: Grandfamilies are disproportionally at or under the poverty line. Your finances may have been okay when you were only caring for you. But kids need clothes and shoes and school supplies. They may need more doctor visits than you do – for routine well child care as well as for illness. And they eat. They eat a lot. Food stamps, subsidized housing, or day care vouchers can make life easier for you and the kids. Your local Senior Center or library can help you figure out what’s available.