Growing numbers of grandparents and (other relatives) are raising family member’s children. Historically, in some communities, it was not unusual for children to live with grandparents for all or parts of their childhoods. More recently, the arrival of drugs, consequent incarcerations, and illnesses, including AIDS, has resulted in larger numbers of families from more varied communities raising relative’s children. Thus, these current kinship placements often have roots in serious family trauma. The consequent adjustments required of aging caregivers are many, as are the challenges to their emotional wellbeing.
Aging in itself can present challenges: e.g. less income, health issues and losses. Grandparents raising grandchildren have these issues to deal with and simultaneously have to once more adjust to the needs of growing children. Grandparents’ long-awaited chances to slow down give way to youthful needs and energies. (It should surely be noted that most grandparents find their lives deeply enriched by the children in their care. Nonetheless, the necessary adjustments can be very stressful for elderly caregivers.)
Socially and psychologically, grandparents raising grandchildren may suffer from an unnamed, unidentified, identity crisis. Where do they fit in? Where do they belong?
If they are raising their grandchildren, something is not “in place” with their adult child. If the kinship placement is a result of their adult child’s drug abuse, neglect, child abuse, incarceration, or mental illness, then that relationship is often conflicted. The elderly person may feel anger, disappointment or grief with regard to their own child, yet may still want to help them. They also know the grandchildren are at risk if they return to their parent. Feelings of having ‘failed’ with their own children can create additional anxieties about how to raise grandchildren.
The adult child may resent their parent for having custody of the grandchildren. This puts a strain on the grandparent’s role and confuses the relationship to their adult child. Adult children who are struggling with their own problems can interfere with the grandparent’s childrearing efforts. Visitation between children and parents can be difficult and painful. The parent’s absence or erratic presence upsets children. Conflicting loyalties are painful, as elderly caregivers feel torn between the needs of their own children and the needs of their grandchildren. This also creates role conflict.
Moreover, grandparents may not ‘fit’ well with their grandchildren. Grandchildren are sometimes upset that they are not with their parents and blame the grandparent. Children’s perceptions that grandparents are keeping them away from parents can help preserve the child’s ideal of the good parent, while fueling anger at grandparents.
Children are sometimes embarrassed that their caregiver is so much older than their peer’s parents. They are impatient with the grandparents ‘old fashioned’ views, and their distance from current youth culture. For the elderly caregiver, the longed-for role of the grandparent who can enjoy children during relaxed visits is a lost dream.
Socially, the grandparent often feels that they don’t fit in with the cohort of parents in school because of the age differences. When attending school functions, they of course find much younger parents who have friendship circles that do not include them. They may not relate to each other comfortably.
Finally, elderly caregivers often do not fit in with their own peers because now they have added responsibilities connected to the children, which their peers do not share. While friends are getting together, going to senior centers, planning trips or signing up for classes, they are helping with homework, attending sick children or carpooling. These intergenerational conflicts can create feelings of isolation and identity confusion for elderly caregivers of children.
It is vital for grandparents raising children to make connections with others in the same situation. Having these connections normalizes their experiences and affords them an opportunity to be heard and understood by others. Support groups become a lifeline for elderly caregivers of children. In these groups they are able to express concerns and feelings in an honest way without the fear of being judged or misunderstood. Their experience is validated by sharing with peers. This is the one place where they fit very well and feel comfortable. The contact with other relative caregivers helps them consolidate their atypical identities and gain clarity about their varied roles and relationships. At VCS Inc. in New City, NY we provide a wide range of support services for elderly caregivers of children, including several monthly support groups. These groups significantly enhance the emotional wellbeing of grandparents who find themselves in unanticipated parenting roles as they age.
Rosa Serrano-Delgado LMSW, is Program Director of the Relatives as Parents Program, and Gail K. Golden, LCSW, Ed.D, is Clinical Director, at VCS Inc.