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Retirees Raising Grandchildren Face Special Challenges

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: Just when I thought that our grown children were happily married so we could relax and enjoy our retirement, our daughter with two young children told us she is having marital problems.  “He doesn’t love me any more.”  She and the children need a place to stay for an undisclosed time. Our daughter will need to work, no easy mission in today’s economy.  Is this a trend?  What can we do about this situation?

Answer: Raising grandchildren in retirement can easily explode a dream of the “golden years.”

Retirement often is envisioned as a time of freedom, having some control over time and doing what you have always wanted to do.  And then, life happens.  Aging parents need some support, a mate requires care, children are out of work and money, and grandchildren need a home.   New responsibilities emerge with a sense of immediacy.

The most recent U.S. Census indicates that more than 6 million grandparents are living with their grandchildren in the grandparents’ home.  In California, well more than a half-million children under 18 live with their grandparents.

Grandparent caregivers can be categorized into three types: First, there are custodial grandparents who have legal custody of their grandchildren.  They provide daily care and make decisions for them.  Second, there are “living with” grandparents.  They provide daily care for their grandchildren but do not have legal custody.  This may apply to your situation. And third, are “day care” grandparents.  They help the child’s parents in caring and supporting the grandchildren.  These grandparents are least affected by the grandparenting role because the children return home at the end of the day.

One way to approach an impending family expansion is to consider some possible challenges and ways to prepare for them.    The University of Wisconsin Extension program conducted a video conference dealing with the topic of grandparents raising grandchildren.  Following are some of the challenges they identified.  I have included some possible ways to address them.

  • Decreased stamina: Grandparents have reported they feel emotionally and physically drained.  Consider building in some help, possibly from a teenager.  Consider carpooling and outsourcing some of the care tasks.
  • Fatigue:  Grandparents have reported a fear of not being able to do the job because they anticipate being tired.  Clearly sleep for recovery will be important.
  • A diminished 401(k):  Economics is a concern with no easy answers.  Your daughter could help, assuming she finds work.  She might have to work temporarily in a position lower than her capabilities.  Revenue is important.
  • Loss of personal time:  Many grandparents report a loss of time for themselves.  Although that time may be less, hopefully you can set some personal time as a priority – a time to do what is important, gratifying and fun for you.
  • No time for friends:  Grandparents report that they feel isolated from friends, since their friends are not in the same situation.  Their responsibilities often prevent them from participating in valued social activities.  It takes concerted effort to keep connected.
  • Isolation from other family members: In some cases other family members resent the role the grandparents have assumed.  Other grandchildren may be jealous and perceive that the grandchildren in the grandparents’ home are favored.  Knowing this, one can arrange to stay in touch with other grandchildren and include them in activities.

Despite the challenges, most grandparents derive satisfaction from acting as parents to their grandchildren.  There are benefits: Having greater purpose in life; feeling fit and active; nurturing family relationships, continuing family histories; knowing you are making a difference; and receiving love and companionship.

Grandparents can have a profound impact.  Former president Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, musician Eric Clapton, actor Jack Nicholson and President-Elect Barack Obama all were raised by grandparents.

For more information, see AARP’s Grandparent Information Center at

My best wishes to you in undertaking this new family responsibility.  Clearly, it requires flexibility and generosity of spirit, time and resources.  Your new role reflects the strength of the family.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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