Grandparents can face a sudden shock to their systems when they first take on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren full time. The situations can be emotional and stressful for everyone in the family.
Legal and financial issues may increase that stress. Most grandparents are at a time of life when their own health is beginning to diminish.
But there are resources, financial assistance and other help available that can ease the stress, shore up health care and ease the money crunch for grandparents raising their grandkids
The secret can be understanding your situation and knowing where to turn for help.
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in America
If you suddenly find yourself raising your grandkids, you are not alone.
There are 70 million grandparents living in the United States. More than 1 in 10 grandparents have a grandchild living with them, according to AARP’s 2018 Grandparents Today National Survey.
In about one-third of those living situations, a grandparent is the primary caregiver.
Why Grandparents Raise Grandchildren
Of the 70 million grandparents in the United States in 2018, about 10 percent lived with grandchildren, up from just 7 percent in 1992, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While hard numbers for the increase are difficult to come by, experts who deal daily with grandparents raising grandkids believe that drug abuse plays an outsized role in the creation of so-called grandfamilies.
“The opioid epidemic, like other drug epidemics before it, definitely impacted our population,” Ana Beltran of Generations United told RetireGuide.com. “We believe, anecdotally at least, that substance abuse is the primary reason that grandfamilies come together.”
But there are other reasons that have contributed to more grandparents raising grandchildren as well.
- Drug Addiction
- In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren was highest in states with higher opioid prescription rates.
- Teen Pregnancy
- A total of 194,377 babies were born in the United States to women ages 15 to 19 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mothers’ youth and inexperience may cause some grandparents to take on child-raising responsibilities.
- Parent in Jail or Prison
- The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that more than half the children of mothers incarcerated in the United States are raised by their grandparents. Another 10 percent of male prisoners’ children are raised by grandparents.
- Child Neglect or Abuse
- If a parent commits child abuse or neglect, grandparents may end up raising the child. Grandparents may require legal advice on acquiring guardianship or custody and should be aware of signs of potential neglect and abuse.
- Military Deployment
- With a rising number of women in the military, and married military couples, grandparents have played an increasing role in raising grandchildren while one or both parents have been deployed to combat zones. This role has diminished with the Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns.
Kinship Navigator Programs: A Healthy Start for Grandfamilies
It’s easy to be overwhelmed when faced with having to raise your grandchildren. Even though you’ve raised children, your life has changed over the years. And the sudden shock of having a new family to care for can feel like an impossible challenge.
Kinship Navigator programs — run by federal, state, territorial and tribal governments — link families to services in states and communities that can help ease the stress and connect them with information, services and other resources to make their challenges more manageable.
“Grandparents have to navigate all these different service systems — education, health care, welfare — so these kinship navigator programs help them navigate these options,” Beltran said. “Kinship Navigator programs don’t offer services of their own, but they link families to services and resources.”
- Child welfare
- Health care
“Kinship Navigator programs can be a wealth of information,” Heidi Redlich Epstein, director of Kinship Policy and director of State Projects at the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, told RetireGuide.com. “They can provide referrals for legal representation, support groups, respite care resources, grandparents can talk to them about benefits that they might be able to apply for.”
Maintaining Good Health While Raising Grandchildren
Nearly 96 percent of Americans become grandparents by the time they’re 65, according to AARP’s Grandparents Today National Survey. If you’re just signing up for Medicare services, take advantage of the free “Welcome to Medicare” physical exam.
Even if you don’t have Medicare, it’s a smart idea to get a physical as you take on the new role of raising your grandkids. It will give you an idea of your health challenges and lifestyle changes you may need to make.
In either case, stick with annual wellness visits to your doctor and any preventative screenings he or she recommends.
Keeping healthy will help you keep up with the challenges of being thrust back into the role of raising a family. But it will also let you set a good example for your grandchildren to live healthy lives.
- Talk with your doctor before beginning an exercise program, and then stay in shape to keep up with your grandkids. Make their playtime your exercise time by incorporating bike rides and outdoor games such as tag or catch into your routine. Learn more options at MedlinePlus.
- Good Nutrition
- Don’t fall into the habit of eating what your grandchildren want. Eat and serve balanced meals that are healthy and nutritious — rich with fruit, vegetables, fiber and lean protein. Check out the National Council on Aging’s healthy eating tips for seniors.
- Steady Sleep Schedule
- Get into a routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day — even weekends. Get eight hours sleep each night. This routine will also help your grandchildren settle into a daily routine. Check out sleep tips for seniors at the National Institute on Aging.
Health Care for Grandparents
Make sure you make and keep medical appointments for routine checkups. These can alert you to any health conditions before they become serious. Keep open and honest conversations going with your doctor and other health care providers.
But affording health care can be difficult when almost 20 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren live in poverty.
If you’re 65 or older, you are likely eligible for Medicare. But even if you are not yet 65, you and your grandchildren may qualify for Medicaid if you fall below certain financial income and resource levels.
Raising Your Grandchildren During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated life for grandparents raising grandchildren.
“These families may have additional challenges because relatives are older, meaning they have different challenges and different precautions they need to take,” John Sciamanna, vice president of public policy for the Child Welfare League of America, told RetireGuide.com.
“COVID-19 is not only heightening challenges that these families already faced, but it's also forming new grandfamilies.”
Age and underlying conditions put grandparents at higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications than typical parents.
“One of the biggest concerns is that your grandchildren could be carriers without showing symptoms,” Sciamanna said. “And that applies even beyond kinship caregivers to grandparents who are simply babysitting a few hours a day.”
Many grandparents have socially distanced from their grandkids since the pandemic began. But that advice doesn’t fit grandparents raising grandchildren.
It’s impossible to socially distance from children when you’re raising them. And there’s been little advice from health professionals on what grandparents raising grandchildren should do.
“The advice is not clear from a health perspective,” Beltran said. “Grandparents are getting on with the job at hand and being as careful as they can be, but there is a lot of fear there because they don’t have the luxury of distancing themselves.”
Dealing with Common Stress
Grandparents raising grandchildren frequently experience stress. They are caring for children at a point in their lives when they never expected. And their new role as caregivers isolates them from friends and others their own age.
- Added strain of caring for children
- Blaming themselves about their adult children being unable to parent
- Financial issues due to raising their children
- Isolation from friends
- Lack of access to day care or health insurance for their grandchildren
- Legal issues involving raising their grandchildren
While there are concrete steps you can take to eliminate some of the underlying causes of your stress, you should still focus on self-care.
- 1. Accept Your Feelings
- Feelings of stress, anger, guilt and grief are normal for people in this situation. Remember that you’ve raised kids before. You have experience and wisdom that you can apply this time around, even if you don’t have the youth and energy. Work smarter, not harder.
- 2. Consider Your Grandchild’s Feelings
- Remember that all your grandfamily members are in this together. Try to understand what they’re going through and understand their behavior may be their efforts to come to terms with their feelings. And be sure to offer them support.
- 3. Create a Stable Home
- It’ll take a while for everyone to adjust to this new life. Create a routine, create the best private spaces you can for each child, set age-appropriate rules and be consistent about enforcing them. Also make sure they have input on how this new life will take shape.
- 4. Take Care of Yourself First
- Staying healthy can help you keep your grandkids healthier. Focus on fitness and a healthy diet, and don’t miss medical appointments. Take time to relax and enjoy your favorite hobbies or the occasional luxury for your own mental health.
Having a stable home life and routine can go a long way toward reducing the day-to-day stress for all members of your new grandfamily.
Dealing with Financial and Legal Stress
Legal and financial issues may be the two biggest causes of stress for grandparents who suddenly find themselves raising their grandchildren.
“They didn’t plan or expect to raise these children,” Beltran said. “So, it’s all been very sudden, and they didn’t have the luxury of financial planning for the situation.”
Grandparents also may be in a precarious legal situation.
“There are resources out there, but it’s not easy,” Beltran said. “There are a lot of challenges to accessing the services, so these families have to be proactive and reach out on their own and contact these local programs.”
Financial Stress of Raising Your Grandchildren
More than 40 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren have unmet economic or social-service needs — either for them or their grandchildren — according to a 2015 study in the journal GrandFamilies: The Contemporary Journal of Research, Practice and Policy.
Most grandparents also don’t qualify for the financial support the government pays to foster parents raising nonrelative children.
Beltran said almost 109,000 grandchildren in the United States do not get foster care maintenance payments, despite being in the legal custody of the foster care system because the grandparents or other relatives raising them are not licensed as foster parents.
“The foster care system relies on grandparents and other relatives without supporting them,” Beltran said. “There’s very limited ongoing financial support for them and it’s a real challenge.
Instead, grandparents need to be proactive and look for other types of financial support available to them.
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families provides child-only grants to help families become self-sufficient. You can see if you are eligible and apply through your state office at Benefits.gov.
- Medicaid and CHIP
- Many children may qualify for health care assistance through either Medicaid or your state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). You can find out if your grandchildren are eligible and apply at HealthCare.gov.
- Food and Nutrition Support
- You can check to see if your grandkids qualify for SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) and the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.
- Social Security
- Children may sometimes qualify to draw Social Security benefits based on their parents' work records or, in some cases, even on the grandparents' work records. Generally, they can collect survivor benefits if the parents are deceased or disabled or if you have legally adopted the children. You can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 for more information.
- Earned Income Tax Credit
- The maximum amount of the EITC for 2021 is $6,728 with three or more qualifying children. You can see if you qualify at the IRS website and then claim it when filling out your tax return.
- Adoption Tax Credit
- The federal tax credit for adoption expenses was up to $14,440 per child in 2021. You can see the requirements and how to file for the credit at the IRS website.
You should also check with the IRS website about childcare credits for which you may be eligible. These can change from year-to-year or because of special circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Make sure you if you were caring for a child last year, you should be able to go to the IRS website and make sure you get the $500 tax rebate you’re entitled to,” Sciamanna said.
Sciamanna also says simply writing a letter to your members of Congress can help you control your stress.
“I think it’s one of the first steps grandparents should take — to reach out to their Representatives’ and Senators’ offices to ask about services and let them know about the challenges you’re still facing,” Sciamanna said. “I think that is really critical.”
He says reaching out to their constituent services offices in your state or congressional district can result in staffers helping you find the resources you’re looking for and passing your concerns on to their boss.
Legal Stress Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Face
Parents have legal rights and relationships with their children. But in many cases, grandparents don’t have an inherent legal relationship to grandchildren even if they are raising them. That can cause serious stress on grandparents — to the point they may not try to create a legal relationship.
“There’s a caution that if grandparents ask for help, that someone will come and say either they’re too old, or they don’t have enough finances to care for the child and remove the child,” Redlich Epstein said. “So there’s real hesitancy on the part of the grandparent to ask for help sometimes.”
Grandparents may also fear if they go to court to seek legal custody, the parent may simply take the child back. But without that legal relationship, the parent is legally allowed to do that at any time.
“It's a double-edged sword of wanting to establish that legal relationship, but you don't want to anger the parent by doing so.”
And without a legal relationship, it can be difficult for a grandparent to do some of the most routine activities in raising a child.
“If grandma takes on grandchild overnight, grandma can have a really hard time enrolling that child in school, getting them health care, getting them health insurance, all these kinds of things,” Beltran said.
Resources are available to help grandparents create a legal bond and relieve that stress. But the methods vary from state to state.
“Some states have a very nice structure where it’s all clearly laid out as to what’s required of the grandparent and/or relative, what’s required of the court, meaning what has to be done in order to establish that legal relationship,” Redlich Epstein said. “But other states are just not as clear or there are some overlapping or complicated statutes.”
Ask an Expert: Legal Resources
Heidi Redlich Epstein is director of Kinship Policy and assistant director of State Projects at the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.
Redlich Epstein says laws applying to grandparents raising grandchildren vary from state-to-state, but there are legal resources available to help them.
It all depends on whether they have established a legal relationship to care for the child through the court or not. A majority of them have not.
A lot of it is state-by-state. Some states have things like medical consent laws, educational consent laws. If you're in a state that has a consent law, it might be that you don't need the court to give you legal custody or guardianship. It could be that those consent laws are enough. Just understanding what your state laws allow is important.
The child can come to the attention of the relative in a lot of different ways. Sometimes the parent can just drop the child off and other times it can be something that's actually almost brokered between the child welfare agency and the grandparent. So, it really depends on how the child comes to live with the grandparent that determines a lot of the legal questions and barriers.
But a lot of times the grandparents or other relatives want to establish a legal relationship — or they need to because they want to sign for field trips at school or get the child into the doctor and there are a lot of reasons they may not have that legal relationship.
On our website, GrandFamilies.org, there are state fact sheets that tell you which organizations help grandparent caregivers in each state.
Some states have fantastic legal representation, but most of the time we find these relatives honestly end up paying out of pocket for attorneys. Some grandparents can go to self-help centers to file for custody and guardianship in some states, but the first resource is to look at those state fact sheets.
Additional Resources for Grandparents
GrandFamilies.org www.grandfamilies.org/State-Fact-SheetsYou can find a fact sheet about resources available in your state for grandparents raising grandchildren. You can also find wide ranging information on other resources, including health care, financial assistance and adoption at this website supported by Generations United, ABA Center on Children and the Law and the Casey Family Programs.
Generations United www.gu.org/explore-our-topics/grandfamilies/Provides publications, resources and information on policy initiatives to inform and help grandparents raising grandchildren.
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