Grandparents raising grandchildren is a population that is growing fast. They are important in sustaining healthy family systems, but the caregiving is demanding and requires that the older adults make significant shifts in the roles that they hold in their families. Grandparents struggle with high stress and they tend to be depressed than non-caregiving older adults. Furthermore, the upheaval from unexpectedly taking on parenting responsibilities may hinder positive aging. Unfortunately, however, grandparent-headed families’ access to and utilization of professional services are limited, and current social services do not meet their needs. For example, grandparents need information on grandparent rights, programs for their grandchildren, legal advocacy, and respite care. These services are often unavailable or, when they exist, the custodial grandparent may be unaware of their eligibility for these services.
To explore needs and experiences of grandparent-headed families, I talked to twenty two grandmothers and one grandfather in Broome County from 2012 to 2013. Of the 23 grandparents, twelve were White, ten were African American, and one was Hispanic. The mean age of the sample was 60 years old (range: 44-76), and the mean age of their grandchildren was 11 years old (range: 5-17). The median annual income of the grandparent-headed families was $40,560, but varied greatly, ranging from $12,500 to $150,000. Economic hardship was prevalent. Of the 23 grandparents, 15 reported family incomes below 150% of the poverty line.
While the stressors impacting grandparent headed families were wide ranging and often unique to a particular family situation, they tended to cluster into four areas: (a) grandparents’ health problems, (b) financial stress of the grandparent-headed families, (c) social isolation, and (d) fragmented support systems. In addition, in all but two cases, the grandparent gained custody of the grandchildren following highly stressful, and frequently, traumatic crises in the family. Circumstances under which the grandparents gained custody included the brutal murder of a grandchild’s mother (the daughter of the grandmother), profound abuse and neglect of the grandchildren by their biological parents, and severe domestic violence that was witnessed by the grandchildren. There were also indications that some families had endured years of highly stressful situations that culminated in the biological parents either losing custody through court order, or voluntarily surrendering the children when they realized they were not capable of parenting. Others stated that they took custody when the adult children’s mental illness interfered with their ability to adequately parent their children. In many cases, the children showed signs of emotional problems that the grandparents attributed to trauma related to the circumstances with the biological parents.
Despite the traumatic events the intergenerational families have experienced, the grandparents show signs of family resiliency that can promote health and growth. Grandparenting gave them the ability to learn from past child-rearing mistakes and improve parenting skills. The grandparents also enjoy loving, rewarding relationships with the grandchildren. For example, one stated, “You learn with your children what not to do with your grandchildren. You become more educated and have more wisdom about what you did as parents.” Another grandmother said, “I’m learning more now and I am finding out the mistakes I made with my daughter and I’m not making those mistakes again. The grandparents shared that raising their grandchildren positive influence their life. One said, “I’m healthier because of him, I have to get up and do stuff because of him, and I walk to school to pick him up so it’s a positive impact.” Another stated, “At my age I am healthier than I was before, I run up and down the stairs, I’m taking them to the movies, putting up the pool, doing things that keep me fit.”
From the interviews, I learned that the multigenerational impact of the trauma is clear and impacts each generation differently. Understanding the physiological nature of trauma and toxic stress reactions and focusing on strengths and resiliency factors are important in working with the grandparent-headed families. Moreover, in spite of the family trauma, the grandparents whom I talked worked hard to protect their grandchildren, nurture them, and provide the stable home life they need. Interventions for the older adults should include efforts to access resources and help custodial grandparents build a coherent support network. While the children may need care to ensure their stability and social emotional development, attention to the older adult’s development is important as well. Linking the normal development process of all generations to the process of healing from trauma can help reinforce positive growth and the development of healthy family systems.