For a growing number of grandparents, their golden years are looking a little different than they might have imagined. That’s because about 2.7 million grandparents in the United States are acting as the primary caregivers to their grandchildren.
The number of children living in grandparent-maintained households has doubled over the past four decades, according to Coresident Grandparents and Their Grandchildren: 2012, a report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The reasons vary. Parents may be unable to care for their kids due to alcohol or drug addiction, incarceration, economic struggles or other issues. Grandparents often step in as caregivers to keep kids out of foster care.
However, parenting later in life can be a challenge — physically, financially and emotionally.
“Grandparents are getting the grandchildren at about retirement time,” said Diana Strickland, who coordinates a grandparent support group at Seaside United Methodist Church in Sunset Beach, North Carolina. “Generally, they’re in their 60s when they first get them,” she said, adding that by the time the children leave the house, grandparents are often in their 80s.
“And that gets more and more difficult, because then your health issues are involved. You’re responsible for a teenager. It’s stressful enough when you’re a young parent, but when you’re an older parent, it gets a little harder,” she said.
According to the census report, about 39 percent of grandparent caregivers have cared for their grandchildren for five years or more.
Parenting at retirement age is a major life adjustment, and those thrust into the role need all the support they can get. Many require help with custody issues and other legal matters, while some need financial assistance and parenting advice.
Dave Panowitz, a longtime member of Bel Air United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Maryland, is the chairperson for Raising Our Children’s Kids Successfully (R.O.C.K.S), a grandparent support group the church has been sponsoring for about five years. He said the biggest problem facing grandparents today is funding.
“For some of these people, the system works against them. They’re trying to do the right thing and they can’t get assistance in a lot of cases. Some of them have two and three grandchildren. … There is zero funding for this stuff,” he said.
About 10 to 20 people attend the monthly gatherings at Bel Air UMC. Meetings often feature speakers who address issues grandparents may be facing. A retired advocate in the school system also participates regularly to help with kids who are having behavioral problems.
Both Strickland and Panowitz said the transition in caregiving is a culture shock for grandparents and children, especially when the kids are struggling with emotional issues.
“You’re dealing with children who probably have been hurt one way or another because they are not with their parents. You’re dealing with a lot of issues here that you can’t resolve. You can’t heal that for them and you’re doing the best you can,” Strickland said. “Some of these parents, if they’re on drugs, they overdose, and then the child’s got to deal with the death. So there are a lot of traumas and a lot of things where the grandparents need a lot of support.”
While there are plenty of books and other resources available, caregivers also need encouragement and support from people in their community.
Strickland helped start the Seaside grandparents group in 2004 when she and her husband began raising one of their seven grandchildren. She said another church member had been dealing with a similar situation and offered her advice. From there, the group grew to other church members and people from the community. Now, up to a dozen people attend weekly.
“A typical meeting at this point is mainly to get together, to touch base, to find out what is going on in each of their lives and what their needs are and what their prayer concerns are. And we pray for one another,” Strickland said.
Panowitz said the meetings offer grandparents an opportunity to share their stories and learn from those who have gone before them. He and his wife are raising an 11-year-old grandson.
The Bel Air group also offers childcare on meeting nights, which allows children to interact with others who are going through similar situations.
“Some of these children really have serious problems that the grandparents are dealing with … You hear some of these stories. You think this must be fiction. This can’t be true what happens. These can’t be real stories. Some of these stories are unbelievable,” he said.
Seaside UMC has a resource book in its library filled with services and agencies that grandparents who are new to caring for grandchildren can use. The support group also offers suggestions for local lawyers and pediatricians.
“There are a lot of problems that are unique with grandparents taking over from parents. It gets a little more complicated than you realize and most of these things happen suddenly. You suddenly have the children. It’s not a gradual thing. The parent ends up in jail, or the children — social services had to take them. You don’t have a lot of preparation,” Strickland said.
Both coordinators liken the support groups to Alcoholics Anonymous, where meetings are confidential and members become like family.
“If we go through it as a group, it becomes personal. Therefore, when one of us loses one of the parents of the children, everyone hurts for them. It’s just tragic and there’s not much you can do. And that’s the other hard thing is to continue to pray for each of the things that comes up that you know that you really can’t do anything about it. It’s beyond our control when you’re dealing with sick parents. That’s the way it is,” Strickland said.
“You just try to protect the child as much as you can, that’s the main thing.”
She said United Methodist churches that don’t currently offer support groups for grandparents should consider doing so. All you need is a staff or church member who “has a real feeling” for this type of ministry, she said.
Regardless of the size of the church, Panowitz said, there are bound to be members facing the same situation and it’s important to extend them a lifeline. He said, oftentimes, grandparents are embarrassed to share their situation.
“They have nobody to talk to … it’s a nightmare for some of these people,” he said.
“I think every church needs a special person to get involved with this. … It’s taking care of the people in the congregation that are afraid to admit they have problems. … This is a situation that you were dealt and you need to make the best of it. And I think we really try to do that.”
He said the best advice he can offer grandparents navigating parenting again is to focus on the grandchildren not their parents.
“You’re here for these grandchildren. You’re not here for their parents. … The parents have made all the mistakes. What’s going to happen to them happens to them. You’re here to make the best thing for these grandchildren. … People have to hear that from somebody else,” he said.
“You have to look out for the well-being of these children.”
Julie Dwyer is general church content editor with United Methodist Communications.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, May –June , 2017.