Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Grandparenting Children with Special Needs

Academic journal article Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics

Grandparenting Children with Special Needs

Article excerpt


During the last century, the human lifespan has increased dramatically. Changes in demographic patterns have implications for social relationships, and this increase in longevity has had dramatic consequences for intergenerational interactions (Hogan & Spencer, 1993). Individuals are now living long enough to have meaningful relationships with grandchildren (Giarrusso & Silverstein, 1996). At the same time, the percentage of children with disabilities is increasing. Medical interventions have allowed many premature infants to survive, but as a result many experience disabilities or other health problems later in life. Likewise, medical interventions have allowed many children with disabilities to survive through childhood (Hogan & Msall, 2002). Children with disabilities often require extensive, continuous care that may be overwhelming for their primary caregivers. Grandparents have the potential to play a very important role in these families by providing caregiving assistance and support to the child and their caregiver.

The manner in which an individual enacts their role of grandparent is influenced by social and cultural expectations, the grandparent's ability to fulfill these expectations, and the needs of the child and family. The lifecourse perspective is central to understanding ways in which grandchildren interact with their grandparents, and how these interactions are influenced by a variety of factors, such as the child's age, family structure, and racial and ethnic characteristics. We argue that children's special needs influence this calculus by shaping the needs of the child and the associated family need.

This study explores how the special health needs of children influence grandparenting practices. Specifically, we ask the following questions:

1. How does the experience of a special-needs child in the family influence the likelihood that a grandparent will reside in the child's household?

2. Do the special health needs of children affect the quality of grandparent-grandchild relationships?

3. Are grandchildren with special needs more likely to have received primary child care from a grandparent?

We then evaluate the extent to which these relationships vary among families of differing ethnicity.


The experience of disability can have a profound impact on the life of the individual as well as on the lives of their family members. Though estimates vary, somewhere between 12% and 18% of children in the United States live with a limiting or disabling physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional condition (Hogan et al., 1997; Newacheck et al., 1998). In the contemporary United States, mothers tend to serve as the primary caregivers for children, including those children with disability (McCallion, Janicki, & Grant-Griffin, 1997).

A considerable body of research has identified aspects of this role as potentially stressful and burdensome (Kim et al., 2003; Marks, 1998), and has documented a variety of negative effects on the lives and well-being of primary caregivers. Caring for a disabled family member may leave caregivers unable or limited to participate in the workforce (Brandon, 2000; Porterfield, 2002; Rogers & Hogan, 2003; Spearin, D'Ottavi, Park, & Goldscheider 2004), can lead to increased rates of illness among caregivers (Marks, 1996) and well siblings (Hogan, Park, & Goldscheider, 2003), and can lead to increased rates of marital dissolution among mothers of children with disability (Spearin, Park, D'Ottavi, & Goldscheider, 2003), to identify a few of such outcomes.

However, this is not to imply that all families of children with disabilities report only negative outcomes. Most researchers in the field would agree that the manner in which families manage the care of children with special needs varies substantially (Seltzer & Heller, 1997). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.