A few weeks ago, I was at a McDonalds PlayPlace with my two grandsons, ages 6 and 11. There were a half-dozen other older caregivers in the room watching the kids burn off some of that Happy Meal energy. When a little girl took a tumble down a slide and cried, “Grandma!” we all rose to our feet to see if it was our grandchild who needed comforting.
Boomers hear a lot about the stresses of the "sandwich generation," caught between caring for aging parents while still raising our own families. Plus, now our parents are living longer, and our kids are having children later, placing this generational caregiving crisis in the midst of midlife.
Some in this demographic take on significant responsibilities as Grandma and Grandpa. As many as 1 in 10 kids in the US are being raised by a grandparent. According to the Census Bureau, more than 2.7 million grandparents serve as primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Another 670,000 do this job while reporting some measure of physical, age-related disability. More grandparents than ever are raising their grandkids.
In some cases, grandparents assist in a positive “takes a village” childcare arrangement, or because one or both parents are deployed in overseas military service. But mostly, grandparents fill in as primary caregivers for their grandchildren when their adult children can no longer parent due to addiction, mental illness, abuse, imprisonment, or other unhealthy lifestyle choices.
In the last year, my husband and I have become part-time caregivers for our grandsons as a result of their parents’ complicated divorce. The experience has opened my eyes to the numbers of children like them, who are now involved in extended family caregiving arrangements.
When I first became a grandparent, I imagined trips to the zoo and memory-making family gatherings. Though we’ve had some of those moments over the years, they are tucked in an avalanche of trauma in our grandsons’ lives, and persistent sorrow in ours. We’ve learned this is Situation Normal for many who are raising grandchildren or nephews and nieces. When a child comes into a relative’s care bearing the open wounds of abuse, trauma or neglect, it disrupts our typical routines.
It can be a lonely situation for child and caregiver alike. Even in our part-time role, we’ve discovered we’re without the supportive community we had when raising our own children—networks formed from neighborhood friends, church family, and the casual connections at extracurricular activities. Grandparents and grandchildren can be isolated from these social circles by the dance of their own complex work schedules, physical limitations or illness, unpredictable visits from grandchildren's parents, and other social and generational differences.
In addition, the financial stresses of becoming a custodial grandparent at or near retirement can add new layers of complexity to a time when older adults navigate a maze of paperwork to seek their own Social Security, Medicare, and pension benefits.
If you have a school-age child, it is likely that at least one of their classmates is living in a home where a member of the extended family is the child’s primary caregiver. Several others likely live in households headed by single parents. These families can be so focused on getting by day-to-day that they find it difficult to reach out for friendship and support. They live on the margins. As the last year of our lives has shown us in new ways, so does Jesus, who has “set the lonely in families.”
Those with intact, growing families who are in the trenches raising children may wonder what kind of ministry they can do at this stage. I’d suggest prayer and intentional friendship for the non-traditional, non-two-parent families in their schools, neighborhoods, churches, and PlayPlaces might be a place to start. More formal connections and training for those interested in reaching out to non-traditional families are available through organizations like Safe Families.
When my husband and I were raising our children, our lives were enriched by our ongoing friendship with an older single parent who attended our church. We were part of a rotating crew of respite caregivers for her youngest daughter. We also grew during the two years we served as foster parents for a series of infants awaiting adoption. Though we didn’t realize it at the time, those experiences provided some helpful context for the unexpected turn my own family’s life has taken today. I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of those young children being brought to Jesus for a blessing may have been carried there in the arms of their grandparents.