Nine years ago, at age 61, Joyce Sylvia never imagined she'd raise children again. Then she and her husband, William, found themselves taking six grandchildren into their Providence, R.I., home.
At the time, Sylvia's daughter-in-law, a single mother, was struggling with drug addiction. Sylvia and her husband, who died seven years ago, took in all six children temporarily but eventually adopted the two youngest siblings, girls who are now 12 and 16. She continues to raise them full time.
“I was overwhelmed because I'd had 18 or 19 years without children in the house," says Sylvia, now 70. “It was devastating to start that all over again. Like my husband said at the time, ‘Geez, I didn’t sign up for this.’
"We took care of them anyway.”
A Growing Corps of Parenting Grandparents
Sylvia is among 2.7 million grandparents who are the sole caregivers of grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, that number of grandparents raising grandchildren has grown since the start of the recession. Children raised primarily by grandparents totaled 2.9 million in 2008, an increase of 6 percent from the year before. The phenomenon of grandparents serving as primary caregivers is more prevalent in minority families. Grandparent caregivers also tend be less wealthy and less educated than the general population; nearly 1 in 5 live below the poverty line.
Grandparents who are sole caregivers find themselves once again changing diapers, attending parent-teacher conferences and dealing with rebellious teenagers. It's not easy. They face a range of emotional, physical, financial and sometimes legal challenges. “It’s one thing to be a grandma, but another to be a mom,” says Robert Geen, director of family services and systems reform policy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, a charitable organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged children.
Guilt about their own parenting is often a part of the swirl of emotions these caregivers face. By taking in children from a parent who is unable to watch over them, Geen says, "you’re acknowledging that the child you raised is unable to care for their child." Feelings of failure, disappointment, sadness, or inadequacy can add an additional level of stress to the pressure of taking responsibility for a child at an older age, as can the insecurity about one's own ability as a parent.
Many grandparent caregivers lack the social-support systems of peers and family that most parents of young children can draw on. They may also lack the financial wherewithal necessary to raise their grandchildren, especially when the children’s parents may not be contributing financially, even if they are on the scene. As a result, many of these caregivers find themselves setting aside their own physical and financial needs to ensure their grandchildren are cared for, putting both their health and retirement planning in jeopardy.
Support Systems Are Catching Up
Even as the trend of grandparents serving as primary caregivers has become more widespread, government services have struggled to adapt. Whether a child is in the foster-care system or living with a grandparent, Geen says, his or her needs are the same. Yet most non-parental family caretakers (grandparents or other relatives) don’t receive all the public assistance they could, because they either don’t know about it or have been led to believe they are not eligible by insufficiently-trained social workers or caseworkers, Geen says. In some cases, grandparent-caregivers with financial need may not qualify for benefits to help support their grandchildren because they have assets, like a house. This is because such support programs "were designed with a 22-year-old in mind and not a 60-year-old," Geen says. "We don’t expect a 22-year-old single, able mother to own a house." You can find a guide to additional sources of support from Generations United.
Grandparents who are sole caregivers often face legal obstacles as well. The vast majority of grandparents raising grandchildren do so without legal guardianship, which can lead to difficulty. For example, in some states, you can't enroll a child in school without legal custody. Similarly, a grandparent without custody may not be able to consent to medical care or obtain health insurance for a child. You can learn more about your state's regulations from the Grandfamilies State Law and Policy Resource Center or The National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights.
Social organizations across the country are working to meet the growing needs of kinship caregivers — grandparents, aunts, uncles and others who find themselves raising a relative's children. A Second Chance, a nonprofit agency of the Office of Children, Youth and Families in Allegheny County, Pa., provides services and programs including training in parental responsibilities and support for handling the emotions and stress involved in raising a relative's child.
In 2006, Ileana Valentin-Lopez, a clinical social worker with Casey Family Services in Providence, created Grand Divas, a support group for grandmothers raising grandchildren. The women meet for seven weeks over the spring and fall to discuss topics ranging from parenting to nutrition to money management. Sylvia, a Grand Divas member, credits the group for helping her get through the nine years she has parented her two granddaughters. (The girls' mother is now part of their lives again.)
“You don’t feel isolated,” Sylvia says. “You have someone who’s on the same path you’re walking on; you have somebody to do things with. After my husband died, it was especially important for me.”
A federal grant has enabled the Grand Divas to evolve into a support network including a help line and a website. Some grandmothers in the program, including Sylvia, have been hired to maintain the website and field calls, offering advice and resources to other kinship caregivers. The women also help train state social workers to support grandparent caregivers. Overall, the program has served more than 400 children and 200 families, Valentin-Lopez says, adding, “The mentoring and support that they give to other families is amazing."
Sylvia says she has taken calls from people raising grandkids "who just wanted to be grandparents and spoil their grandchildren and send them home. It’s like starting all over.” She urges other grandparent caregivers to be patient, show love, find spiritual help, listen to the children, and, above all, find support, "because we need it. All of us.”
Grandparent caregivers face many challenges but they never forget why they do what they do, and many embrace the benefits of having children in their lives again. Nine years into her new start, Sylvia says her two granddaughters keep her young. “I feel 60,” she says, boasting that she's become as proficient a texter as the girls. "I can do everything that they can.”