The number of grandparents raising grandchildren has catapulted in the past decade, impacting millions of lives and hearts.
Betty Lou Lindley’s friends were retiring—just as she was becoming a parent for the second time. Lindley, 87, raised her two granddaughters in Pleasant Hill, Oregon starting when they were two and four years old. She loved being their grandma. She never expected to become their mother too.
The toddlers were traumatized when their mother abandoned them, running away with a man she met in a bar and spiraling into addiction. Their father worked long hours as a helicopter repairman and only saw his girls late in the nights, so they grew up living with their grandma.
“Kristen and Karen experienced so much neglect and loss,” said Lindley. “I tried to make life as good for them as I could. I felt more like they were my daughters than my granddaughters, and I raised them as my own. They weren’t in a normal situation. But I know I’m not the only one who has raised grandchildren.”
A 2017 Children’s Defense Fund analysis revealed that the number of U.S. children living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives was 7.5 million.
Grandparents are raising grandchildren primarily because of the opioid crisis and other forms of addiction, according to The American Society on Aging.
Rachel Jacobsen, a manager for Lane County’s Senior and Disability Services Division, explained that the children’s parents are addicted, incarcerated, chronically unemployed or dead from overdose. “We call it the missing generation,” said Jacobsen.
Grandparents and other relatives are trying to fill in the gap. “The burden on these grandparents is huge,” said Jacobsen. They are often struggling to take care of their spouse, parents or themselves, let alone grandchildren. One in five grandparents raising grandchildren lives below the poverty line and one in four has a disability.
The opioid crisis and its consequences for families are often overlooked. But some agencies and organizations are taking action.
In 2018, Congress passed the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, anticipated to support 2.6 million children in the U.S. being raised by grandparents or other relatives. That number is expected to grow—along with the opioid epidemic.
It’s great to see this federal agency stepping up to support grandparents. But when I talked to Jacobsen, she said that creating a resource council is not enough. Grandparents have to know the resources exist and be willing to accept them.
Most older adults aren’t very technology-literate, she explained. They aren’t looking online for resources and don’t know where to go to get funding, parenting classes, respite care or other support. “Relative caregivers often have a hard time reaching out for help because there’s no time—they’re with their loved ones 24/7. Their health is deteriorating. They don’t come up for air. They’re a really isolated, hard-to-reach population. And they have a hard time accepting help when it’s offered.”
To reach them better, Jacobsen explained, nonprofits, government agencies, schools and businesses need to change their public relations strategies. More door-to-door campaigns, direct-mail information and in-person/word-of-mouth strategies are needed.
But there are things that you and I can do too. The adage goes that it takes a village to raise a child. Tricia Brown from DHS said that to support grandfamilies, we first need to change our perspectives.
“Grandparents aren’t often supported in the way they should be,” Brown explained.
Brown said that children in foster families are often stigmatized. “There tends to be judgment in the community about kids in care—kids in care being broken, being this or that. People make comments like: ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ I’ve heard that more times than I can stand.” The first way to help grandfamilies, Brown explained, is to recognize the humanity and dignity of the children.
But grandparents raising their grandchildren often aren’t supported either—not because they are stigmatized, but because they are ignored. Invisible. Isolated.
“People just don’t notice older adults,” said Brown. “Because grandparent caregivers don’t usually ask for help, people never notice that they are in need. No one sees them. But they should be celebrated and supported. This isn’t how they planned on spending their old age. It’s an imperfect system, but grandparents are a vital part of it right now.”
Organizations have a lot of public relations work to do to help grandfamilies in the midst of this opioid crisis. But we have work to do, too. If you know a grandparent raising their grandchild, reach out. Ask if you can help with a specific need. Invite them over for dinner. Listen to their story. Be a friend. Educate them about the resources available to them (see below).
Not every family looks the same—and that’s okay. It’s time we start seeing and supporting the millions of grandfamilies around us every day.
SEVEN RESOURCES FOR GRANDFAMILIES
- Relatives as Parents Program (RAPP)
- National Council on Aging
- Help Guide
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- AARP Grandfamilies Guide
- Relative Parent/Caregiver Training
- Raising Your Grandchildren
Featured photo: source