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When Grandparents Raise Grandchildren When Grandparents Raise Grandchildren
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When Grandparents Raise Grandchildren

Insights & Ideas Team •  August 8, 2016 | Home and Family

When “Rebecca,” who is using a pseudonym to protect her grandchildren’s privacy, turned 55, she and her husband put their retirement plans in motion. They purchased a new home in Virginia suited to their empty-nest lifestyle and placed a deposit on a second home in the Caribbean, where they planned to spend the winter months.

What Rebecca didn’t anticipate was caring for a two-year-old granddaughter after her son was no longer able to do so. Suddenly, she found herself buying diapers, hiring a lawyer to make custody arrangements and trying to care for a busy toddler.

Rebecca’s job as a senior-level employee in the federal government required frequent traveling, which made it difficult for her to care for her granddaughter. Despite the plans she and her husband had in place, Rebecca retired early and took a part-time job. Over the next few years, her husband also retired to help with child care as the couple became guardians to their son’s other two children.   

With no financial support for any of the children, Rebecca and her husband depleted their retirement savings and gave up their winter home in the Caribbean in order to cover school supplies, health care, sports uniforms and therapists. Two of their three grandchildren, now ages 15, 12 and 11, also have special learning needs.

Yet the ability to have all three grandchildren under one roof was immeasurable. “It was the epitome of success to raise them all together,” she says.

Grandfamilies Are Growing

Rebecca and her husband are among the 2.7 million grandparents now serving as primary caregivers for their grandchildren, according to the group Generations United. And the percentage of children growing up in grandfamilies has doubled since the 1970s, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

As in Rebecca’s case, it’s often unexpected when grandparents become primary caregivers, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. 

“There are grandparents who have prepared all their lives for the kind of retirement they wanted,” she says. “There’s a sense of loss for what their family was and a loss of what their dreams, hopes and ambitions were for their own lives.

“But most grandparents will tell you that they wouldn’t have it any other way,” she adds.

Among grandparents who become primary caregivers, about 58 percent are still in the workforce and often in their peak savings years for retirement, states the Generations United report, The State of Grandfamilies in America.

Many pre-retirement caregivers quit their jobs or cut back on work hours, while caregivers who are already retired often spend retirement income to care for their grandchildren.

Bette Hoxie, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, is still working after raising her 17-year-old grandson from the time he was an infant. “He started out as a seven-pound baby boy, and now he’s 6'5" and drinks a gallon of milk a day,” she says.

Hoxie, now 70, would like to retire when her grandson graduates from high school next year, but she still needs to figure out how to send him to college.

“Retirement will definitely take on a much slimmer view,” she says. Hoxie’s grandson is the child of one of her adopted sons. Both her son and the boy’s mother struggle with mental illness and agreed to place their child in her care.

Hoxie recommends, whenever possible, that grandparents maintain a strong rapport with the children’s parents to make custody arrangements smoother for everyone involved.

Save for College with Confidence: Your Guide to Education FundingThe Benefits of Grandfamilies

Although there are many challenges, research shows that children living in grandfamilies thrive, experiencing increased stability, continued connections with siblings and the ability to preserve their cultural heritage.

“They’re more likely to stay connected to their own roots, their family history, their stories and the traditions that help lay a firm foundation for their future,” says Butts.

Perhaps most important, the grandchildren are more likely to report feeling loved. “That’s why the grandparents are doing it. They love these children unconditionally,” adds Butts.

Each state has its own policies on kinship care (the care of children by relatives other than their parents) and provides varying levels of resources for finding information. To help grandfamilies stay together, Generations United is encouraging governments to develop federal and state policies that empower relatives to make informed decisions about custody options and provide access to family services and support.

Help for Grandfamilies

A good first step is federal legislation introduced in June called the Family First Act that includes support for grandfamilies, says Butts. Some states also offer kinship navigator programs that serve as one-stop shopping centers for resources that are available to grandparents and the children in their care.

Local kinship support programs also may offer emotional support and activities for grandfamilies. “It can be very helpful in knowing that you’re not alone,” says Butts. 

Grandparents who are considering becoming primary caregivers need to ask themselves honest questions, advises Hoxie. “You need to really take a hard look at your reality. If you’re talking about an infant, what does that look like to you 20 years later?” she asked.

Here are some tips for new grandfamilies from Generations United:

  • Ask questions. Find out what kind of financial and emotional support your state offers, what tax credits are available for kinship caregivers and your legal options for custody. As a starting point, Generations United offers an online guide to state laws.
  • Understand your rights. Look for kinship navigator programs that act as a guide to resources in your state.
  • Put aside pride. While it may be difficult for financially independent grandparents to ask for help, remember that any support you seek is support for your grandchildren, says Butts.
  • Find similar families. Look for local grandfamily groups that enable grandparents and grandkids to make friends with families in similar situations, and help them realize they are not alone.
  • Encourage community service clubs in your area to create support systems for grandfamilies. A Big Brother or Sister can engage your grandkids in physical activities that may be more challenging for grandparents and provide some needed respite.

If it’s manageable, the benefits of engaging in a second round of parenthood can outweigh the challenges, says Hoxie. “It’s been a joy. My grandson woke up every day with a smile, and he still does,” she adds. “None of it comes easily, or cheaply, but he’s worth it.” 

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