WILMINGTON, Del. — These are supposed to be their golden years. They worked hard, earned a decent living and raised their family. Now it’s time to relax and reap the benefits of a life well lived.
But not for those who have had to take on the responsibility of raising grandchildren. Their golden years have been put on hold as they have begun another cycle of child-rearing.
Delores and Larry Kling have been parenting their 8-year-old granddaughter, Amber, since she was an infant. The Klings’ son and the child’s mother abandoned their baby and have yet to remember her on birthdays and holidays.
While Amber is a loving child who does well in school, her grandmother worries how much the situation with her biological parents has affected her and is seeking counseling to help them all cope.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Delores Kling. “I’m sure it’s on her mind all the time.”
The number of grandparents who provide primary care for their grandchildren is growing. Nationwide, more than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the responsibility of raising grandchildren in what the AARP calls “grandfamilies.”
Although grandparents raising grandchildren is not new, the percentage is the largest seen in the past 40 years. “Grandparents are the new safety net and it’s not going to change,” said Judy Pierson, a licensed clinical psychologist from Rehoboth Beach, Del.
Grandparents are faced with the responsibility of raising their grandchildren for a variety of reasons, including parental death, substance abuse, incarceration, mental health issues, military deployment, teen pregnancy, abandonment, abuse or neglect.
The economy has also played a role. The rate of unemployment among workers ages 22 to 34 is double that of 55- to 64-year-olds.
Grandparents often assume the role of parents to keep the children safe and out of foster homes. Indeed, the 2008 federal Fostering Connections Act says states must first look to kin when a child is removed from a home because of abuse or neglect, allowing grandparents to be considered a replacement when the family has experienced a crisis.
Being called upon to parent on such short notice creates challenges for grandparents. There may be financial constraints as many grandparents live on a fixed income. Moreover, retirement nest eggs have shrunk as a result of the economic downturn.
Behavioral problems can also be an issue. Children may act out because they don’t understand why they can’t be with their biological parents.
“Psychologists call it ‘externalizing problems’ where they’re going to be resistant and really difficult to deal with,” said Pat Tanner Nelson, a professor and certified family life educator at the University of Delaware.
Demands and fears
Grandparent caregivers may feel that they can’t keep up with their grandchildren because they are in poor health or because the children are so active. “Kids are hard enough to raise when you’re younger but when you’re older …,” said the 64-year-old Kling, who lives in Dover.
Grandparents raising grandchildren must also deal with a welter of emotions, including anger, resentment and guilt. “For one thing, all of their plans for retirement go out the window,” Pierson said.
They may also feel they have been robbed of the traditional grandparenting experience. “If the kids are going to grow up healthy, they have to add that additional layer (of discipline),” Nelson said. “It makes it less fun.”
And grandparents may feel that they themselves have failed as parents. “They may feel a sense of shame and worry that it says something about the parenting of that (adult) child,” Pierson said.
Raising grandchildren can also cause difficulties with other family members. “The other adult children may resent their parents that are putting out money and resources to take care of the sibling who is not living up to their responsibilities and they may feel that those grandchildren are more important to the grandparents,” Pierson said.
Support is essential
Becoming a parent again can be an overwhelming experience, but it can also be a rewarding one with the proper support. Experts agree that grandparents can benefit from sharing their concerns and needs with others in support groups.
Experts also recommend that grandparents take care of their health and make time for themselves.
They should also reach out to family and friends for help. “Even people who live far away can do some things like make phone calls about resources or send a coupon for a massage,” Pierson said.
Grandparents who assume the responsibility of raising their grandchildren have a unique opportunity to play an important role in their grandchildren’s lives. “We’re talking about shaping another human being’s life and giving these kids a chance at having a more promising future,” Pierson said.
— Acknowledge your emotions and find safe ways to express those feelings.
— Take care of yourself and try to get some “alone” time every day.
— Make time for your spouse or partner.
— Consult with an attorney and financial planner.
— Set limits and rules for your grandchildren and teach them interpersonal skills. Consider counseling to help them cope with their feelings.
— Ask family and friends for help and utilize existing resources.