WASHINGTON — As the number of children living with grandparents has risen in recent decades, the profile of caregiver grandparents has also evolved into a more diverse tapestry, with grandparents filling in the gaps in increasingly nontraditional family structures, according to a report released Tuesday by US 2010, a research project on changes in American society funded by Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation, a New York-based social science research center.
In particular, as rates rise for divorce and remarriage, single parenting and other nontraditional family structures, older Americans have been stepping in to help their offspring with child care, said the study, “Diversity in Old Age: The Elderly in Changing Economic and Family Contexts.”
Over 40 million or 13 percent of Americans are 65 or over, with the proportion expected to increase to 20 percent by 2050, and over 90 percent of them are grandparents. They are more diverse and better educated, are expected to live longer, and are better off financially than previous generations, says the report, which uses data from the U.S. Census; the Health and Retirement Study, a University of Michigan longitudinal study funded by the National Institute on Aging; and the University of Michigan’s 2012 Survey of Consumers, as well as other sources.
Across the United States, nearly 7.8 million children are living in homes with grandparents present, 4.9 million live in grandparent-headed households, and 2.6 million live in homes where the grandparents say they are the primary caregivers, said Amy Goyer, AARP’s multigenerational and family issues expert, adding that 1 million living with a grandparent have no parent in the house at all.
“We saw a big uptick with the recession, because grandparents have always been a safety net,” Goyer said, adding that nearly 20 percent of grandparents with grandchildren in the house are living in poverty.
Compared by some social scientists to the National Guard, grandparents and other older relatives “come in and help when they’re needed,” said Judith Seltzer, director of the California Center for Population Research at UCLA and one of the report’s authors. “They do it because that’s what family members do.”
But who exactly does it, to what degree, and under what circumstances varies across race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic level, and family structure, the report said.
More than in the past, the grandparent stage is now seen as a distinct life stage, with older adults generally more likely to have finished raising their own offspring by the time they become grandparents. They are also more likely to help their children financially the older they are; whereas younger grandparents tend to help more with child care, the report said.
High rates of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation and childbearing outside marriage weaken family bonds, the report said, noting that such circumstances are most prevalent among poorer, less-educated families.
At the same time, remarried parents and divorced fathers are less likely to help their adult children financially; women tend to have closer ties to their grandchildren than men do. Almost one-third of grandmothers who live with a grandchild are their primary caregivers, the report said.
African-American and Hispanic grandmothers are more likely than whites to live with grandchildren, and African-Americans are more likely than Hispanics to be the primary caregivers, the report found.
Often, being a primary caregiver for grandchildren is not part of the grandparents’ plan.
Willette Taylor, 61, of Washington, has been raising her 9-year-old grandson, Nayor, on her own since her 23-year-old daughter was killed when he was an infant; her husband died a few months later.
For a while her parents stepped in, but they were too frail to help much. Now unemployed, she is searching for work and living off Social Security benefits from her husband and daughter.
“I miss some things” about a child-free life, she said. But, she said, she is comforted by how much her grandson reminds her of her daughter. “I gotta do what I gotta do,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it no other way.”
Pat Owens, 70, of Thurmont, Md., has been the primary caregiver for her 17-year old grandson Michael since he was 4. When she started, she said, there were few resources for people in her situation; in 2001 she started Grandfamilies of America, an organization that provides resources for caregiver grandparents and other relatives, and she has pushed for legislation to give family members priority when placing children whose parents cannot care for them.
Owens took over care of her grandson when her daughter, who was using drugs and drinking heavily, flitted in and out of her parents’ house and eventually left.
“I really just envisioned you get married, you have a family, everybody’s happy, like all the fairy tales you read,” Owens said.
As families grow smaller and more fractured, the study “raises some important questions as to how the family safety net will hold up, on both sides,” Seltzer said.
Even as older people with fewer children can devote more time to individual grandchildren, she said, they are themselves more likely to be left without a family caregiver as they age, especially among families with high rates of divorce and cohabitation.
“So this group that has the greatest need for help are going to have the weakest family bonds,” she said.