When Grandparents Become Parents *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Being a grandparent is wonderful. Typically we get to have the fun of playing with our grandchildren, while avoiding most of the responsibilities of raising them. However, some grandparents are taking over the complete responsibility for raising their grandchildren.

According to the United States Census Bureau, about 3.3 million children lived with their grandparents in 1991. This is a 44% increase over 1980. The proportion of black children living in such situations is higher than white or Hispanic children, but the largest increase over that decade was found among white children.

In the last few years, Margaret Jendrek of the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, has interviewed 114 grandparents who are providing regular care for their grandchildren. Nearly all of them were grandmothers. Although most were caring for one grandchild, some were responsible for as many as five.

There seem to be at least three types of caring situations.

Typically, Jendrek found that these grandparents are caring for their daughters' children rather than those of their sons. This is especially true for custodial grandparents. The day care situation usually involves younger children, while other situations involve care for children ranging up to 14 years.

Reasons for assuming childcare responsibilities varied widely. Problems scheduling full-time work loads were most frequently cited by the day care grandparents, but the mothers' emotional problems was most common among the custodial group. The "living with" group cited financial problems most frequently.

Overall, about two-thirds had offered their childcare. However, in the "living with" situation, it was more likely to be a gradual assumption of responsibilities. Sometimes, the child's mother hasn't even left home herself. This type of situation seems to lead to the greatest stress. Even so, obtaining legal custody may involve declaring their child as unfit, which can lead to greater financial and emotional problems.

Parenting grandchildren can lead to
a greater sense of purpose in life."

All of these groups are committed to "providing a stable family environment." In this difficult situation, they seem capable of improvising to care for their grandchildren. Even so, rearing grandchildren effects their lifestyle, friendships, family and marriage. Nearly 75% needed to make major adjustments in their routines, with custodial grandparents needing to make the greatest changes. Even with the problems, 50% of the whole group and almost two-thirds of the custodial grandparents reported a greater sense of purpose in life.

Of the three conditions, the day care group seemed to function most similarly to stereotypical grandparents. However, all these grandparents need extra support and encouragement from other family members. For financial and medical help, aid might be available from the Family Assistance offices of the Department of Economic Security (DES). Local offices can be found in the state portion of the Government Pages near the front of your telephone book. Good luck!

* Adapted from David Spiegel's article, "More grandparents rearing grandchildren," The Menninger Letter, January, 1995, page 6.

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