Academic journal article Generations

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Challenges and Responses

Academic journal article Generations

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Challenges and Responses

Article excerpt

Discussions within gerontology of family solidarity between generations have tended to focus on the critical role of adult children, and particularly daughters and daughters-in-law, as informal caregivers to the disabled elderly. Largely overlooked in such discussions, until recently, has been another group of cross-generational caregiversthe growing number of mid-life and older grandparents who are raising some of the nation's most vulnerable children. Yet in many wa)s, such caregiving provides the quintessential example of family transfers and family solidarity. Although grandparents often step in as surrogate parents as a consequence of breakdowns in a family's social compact (e.g., when their teenage or adult children prove unable or unwilling to provide care to their own children), the very fact that they do step in to "keep the family together" is a classic example of family resilience in the face of often substantial obstacles.

Grandparents raising grandchildren is not new: Grandparents have always served as "the family watchdogs" (Troll, I985) and "the second line of defense" for children (Kornhaber, I985) in times of crisis. But what is new is the rapid growth in this phenomenon, with close to a 4 percent increase in the number of children living with grandparents and other relatives between I98o and I99o, and continued, albeit somewhat slower growth through the I99os (Saluter, I992; Casper and Bryson, I998). By I997, close to 4 million children, or 5.5 percent of all children in the United States, lived in a household headed by a grandparent (Lugaila, in press). In approximately one-third of homes, neither of the child's biological parents is present, and the number of these "skipped generation" families continues to grow at a rapid rate (Casper and Bryson, I998). More than one in ten grandparents (Io.9 percent) at some point raise a grandchild for at least six months, and typically for far longer periods of time (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler, and Driver, I997).

This paper includes a brief profile of America's grandparent caregivers and a review of the causes of the increase in intergenerational households headed by grandparents as well as some of the challenges it entails for grandparents and their families. The paper also describes the development of supportive services for grandparent caregivers and their families, highlighting several model program efforts across the country, and looks at the need for supportive policies that assist-rather than penalize-the growing number of intergenerational families headed by grandparents.


Who are America's caregiving grandparents and what do we know about the children in their care? Although media accounts have tended to focus on single, low-income African-American women raising their grandchildren, recent national studies suggest that the typical grandparent raising a grandchild is a white married woman living above the poverty line. Nationally, slightly more than half of grandparent caregivers are married (54 percent) and more than three quarters (77 percent) are women (FullerThomson, Minkler, and Driver, I997).

However, being single, living in poverty, and being an African American do substantially increase the odds of becoming a caregiver for one's grandchildren. For example, African-American children are four to five times more likely than non-Hispanic white children to be living in "kinship care" households-those in which children have been formally placed with their grandparents or other relatives (Harden, Clark, and Maguire, I997) -a fact reflecting both current socioeconomic realities and a long history of caregiving across generations in black families (Burton and Dilworth-Anderson, I99I). Although not as prevalent as in African American families, among Latinos, grandparent caregiving also appears more common, with 6.5 percent of Hispanic children (compared to 4.I percent of whites and I3.5 percent of African Americans) living with grandparents or other relatives (Lugaila, in press). …

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