Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grandparents as Caregivers and the Sandwich Generation

In a junior high school in the heart of the Bronx 15 years ago, nearly half of the African American students were being raised by their grandparents. Nobody asked why, nor was this alarming to any of the teachers or other students. While this anecdote isn’t the norm, the number of children being raised by their grandparents is growing. There are now about nearly 6 million children living in a grandparent’s house in the United States, a growth of over 50% from just 10 years ago.

                Traditionally, grandparents take charge of children in cases of illness, parental abandonment, teen pregnancies, substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, death of a parent, child abuse and neglect, poverty and divorce. The recession of the last few years has increased the number of parents who are not able to provide for their children and since over 70% of the grandparents taking care of children own their home, most baby boomers are better off financially than the rest of the population, at least in the time being. However, in homes with only the grandmother as the caregiver, the average income is around $20,000 a year.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that raising children can have on a population that already has to deal with health concerns and planning for or entering retirement. With 20% of them living in poverty, some are unable to retire or have to retire later in order to make ends meet. When the need for grandparents being the caretakers comes suddenly, older adults do not have time to plan for the proper care or the financial logistics of taking care of a child. Many do not have power of attorney to make decisions for the child. Educational and medical consent laws differ by state. If the household has not had any children living in it for a long time, it may not be safe for small children. These are issues that may not be in the mind of an overwhelmed grandparent.

In a time when the “sandwich generation,” –characterized by middle age parents also taking care of their parents– is mentioned as a growing social problem, the issue of grandparents as caregivers is also a serious one.  There aren’t many programs aimed at helping them. Exacerbating the problem is that custodial grandparents tend to be on the younger end, and therefore are still at an age when they could be working themselves, creating a problem of child care. Even worse, a new trend is that of the “club sandwich,” described as people in their 50s and 60s who are tasked with taking care of three generations, and are stuck between their grandchildren, adult children and aging parents. The feeling of being closed-in from so many directions can lead to depression. There is a page on Facebook titled “Red Button Presents: The Sandwich Generation Discussion.” The administrator, who was part of the sandwich generation herself, did not have time to continue running the page and it has fallen into disuse. This small example shows how little time we may have for the things we like to do once we have to take care of another person.

One option for people in the sandwich generation with elderly parents is an adult day health care program, where their loved one can be picked up in the morning, spend the day at the day care facility, and be taken back home in the afternoon. This could alleviate the stress of having to care for multiple family members, especially if they are of very different ages. Home care services may also help, depending on the level of need. When children are not in school or still too young for it, a caregiving grandparent may get help from a child care program. Research shows that a child’s attachment to a parent or guardian will not be negatively affected by being in child day care as long as they have a loving caregiver.

According to a survey done by, 69% of caregivers say that caring for a loved one is their biggest source of stress. 3 in 4 caregivers have had to change jobs to better deal with their circumstances There are few programs to help those caring for their grandchildren or children and elderly parents. This CNN Money has a good list of online resources:

Additionally, there is legal, financial and caregiving support information for grandparents raising children here:

The New York City Department for the Aging has a Grandparent Resource Center:

                Here at Isabella Geriatric Center, we have Adult Day Health Care, Home Care and Child Day Care, all of which you can find at under the “Programs” tab.

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1 comment:

  1. I’m glad you decided to shed light on a growing population of grandparent caregivers. There are a host of issues, as you have pointed out, that may uniquely affect this segment of the aging population. Oftentimes the transition from grandparent to caregiver is unexpected. Many grandmothers report difficulties with the abrupt shift to caring for their grandkids and a lack of fit between their roles as caregivers and their aging development. These transitional issues can be very stressful for grandparent caregivers alone, aside from other issues such as clarifying their role and providing financially. It is important for grandparents to have several coping strategies in place that are contextually and culturally relevant to help mitigate the stress. Otherwise, the mounting stress could negatively affect the mental and physical health of the grandparent, as well as the grandparent’s relationship with the grandchild. These issues raise important implications for policy and practice. Keep shedding light!