Pay Your Parents for Caregiving: A Win-Win Model

For some families, hiring a grandparent makes sense

The vast majority of boomers are either grandparents already or will be soon, and many will provide substantial amounts of care to their grandchildren. A 2012 MetLife/Generations United study found that one in 10 grandparents provide regular childcare — of those, roughly one third provide care five days a week or more.

Most provide this care for free. But some (precise data is not available) are paid to be their grandkids’ daycare provider. If, after all, the parents need to work and pay someone to care for their children, why not have that person be a loving grandparent who needs more income?

(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)

Payment Makes It Possible

Joan Samworth, 71, of Takoma Park, Md., never set out to become a paid caregiver for her grandson, Evan. She began by helping out her daughter and son-in-law when Evan was born with medical problems that kept him in the intensive care unit. Once he was discharged, his parents considered hiring a nanny, but after his rough start in life, “they were hesitant about asking anyone else, so I offered,” says Samworth. “It was going to be short-term.”

After a year, though, when her daughter began looking for a long-term day-care provider, Samworth says, “I didn’t want to give him up.”

Her daughter knew that Samworth needed more income, so she offered to pay her, rather than hire a stranger. “We came up with an hourly rate that was much lower than any nanny would get, but it works for me,” says Samworth. “I know if I needed more, she would give it to me.” If she were in a position to provide the care for free, Samworth adds, she would.

They worked out an arrangement that allows Samworth, an artist, to continue teaching art classes one day a week and to care for Evan in her home the four other weekdays. “I’m tired at the end of the day, but it’s a good tired,” she says. “It changes your life, but in many good ways.”

Another grandmother, who asked not to be identified, moved to her daughter and son-in-law’s home from out of town to help out caring for their baby. She was dissatisfied with her job and ready for a change. “My son-in-law asked if I would consider doing this,” she says. “As we thought more about it, I knew I had to be able to cover my bills, and we worked it out.” She moved in with the family and receives a modest income. She, in turn, contributes to the family food budget.

(MORE: When Parents Move In With Their Boomer Kids)

Living under the same roof can be a tricky balancing act, but it’s going well, she says. “I don’t want to feel like a guest here, but I don’t want to feel like an employee either,” she says. “I want to feel like I’m part of the family, but I want to respect their boundaries as well.” She takes satisfaction in giving the parents a weekly date night in addition to day-time care. She is paid a lump sum, regardless of the number of hours of care she provides.

Like Samworth, this grandmother says the pay makes it possible to provide the care. “I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” she says.

In addition to parents paying, in some states the foster care system will pay a grandparent to take care of the children.

Some Would Never Take Pay

More common than cash is in-kind compensation, such as a paid vacation, dinners out or other gifts, says Susan Adcox, who writes about grandparenting for About.com. Adcox conducted a (nonscientific) poll on her website and of the 250 grandparents who responded, roughly one-quarter said that if they were to provide full-time childcare, they would expect to be compensated.

Similar web polls have evoked lively discussion, with some expressing horror at turning grandparenting into a financial transaction, and others saying it’s only fair for grandparents to be compensated for full-time care.

Draw Up a Contract

Before proceeding with a paid arrangement, Adcox suggests that families draw up a simple contract spelling out hours and wages.

“Sometimes, grandparents feel like they’re being taken advantage of because the parents think the grandparents are happy for however much time they get to spend with their grandchildren,” she says. It can be hard for grandparents to say no when their children want to extend the agreed-upon time.

The contract should also spell out how to handle expenses, because incidental costs add up quickly.

“Some people are more blasé and they’re not going to resent if they’re out a little extra money,” Adcox says. “But some cannot afford these extra expenses.”

Pay or no pay, it’s a big commitment.

(MORE: How to Manage Grandkids’ Expectations)

Peter Francese, a demographer and consumer market analyst who has studied grandparents for years and who has five grandchildren himself, stresses that the practice of paying grandparents is unusual. Most family money flows in the other direction — from grandparents to grandchildren — a new phenomenon of the last 25 years. “There’s been a tremendous flip from a societal point of view,” he says. “The real income of parents has been shrinking, while the income of those 55 and older has been rising.”

But in those families where the grandparents are not as well off, he says, compensating them for providing childcare is a good idea. “If this grandmother can live a little bit better because you’re paying her — and it usually is a grandmother — I don’t see any downside,” Francese says. “I can see an upside for someone who is either living on Social Security or who is too young to get Social Security. They may have lost a job, they’re unemployed, and the parent who compensates them is doing them a big favor. Most grandparents love taking care of their grandchildren. I see only benefits — but it’s not for everybody. It’s a commitment — a substantial commitment.”

For Samworth, this means pushing herself to keep moving, despite pain from arthritis in one knee. She bought Evan his own little easel so they can paint together. They go on regular outings to the playground and to music and play classes. Following him around on the play equipment “is not a pretty sight, but I do it,” she jokes. “I find I take naps when he takes naps.”

Samworth is hardly in this for the money. “I find I smile a lot during the day,” she says. “When you’re with the little ones, everything they do is so wonderful, especially watching them change. A lot of people have told me I look younger. There’s something about being needed that really makes you feel good about yourself. I feel like I’m really contributing something to him and his parents.”

Beth Baker
By Beth Baker
Beth Baker is a longtime journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, AARP Bulletin, and Ms. Magazine. She is the author of With a Little Help from Our Friends — Creating Community as We Grow Older and of Old Age in a New Age — The Promise of Transformative Nursing Homes.

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