Grandparents can be an important resource, offering valuable support to both parents and children. They may help with child care or, for older children, drive them to school, sports events, or other extracurricular activities. Grandparents often help with homework and meals, and some may even support their grandchildren financially.
In some cases grandparenting goes beyond the occasional assistance and becomes regular part-time or even full-time care. An increasing number of children in the United States live in households headed by a grandparent, belonging to what is known as a “grandfamily.” The latest data indicate that 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, according to a study published in 2020.1 The reasons vary, but they include a rise in teen pregnancy, single-parent families, and divorce. There are also an increasing number of families in which substance abuse is a problem, resulting in grandchildren living with their grandparents.
“For households across the nation, grandparents have stepped up to become caregivers, for a variety of reasons, and with that responsibility often comes difficulties,” says medical doctor Andrew Adesman.2
Adventist grandparents Tom and Catherine Henderson3 found themselves moving from grandparenting into full-time parenting when their three granddaughters came to live with them. They began when the girls were younger, and have been caring for them for the past nine years. They started because of an increase in stress and trauma in the children’s home. “Taking on the role of ‘parent’ has its challenges and joys,” they report.
This example reflects the most extensive research to date, which surveyed 80,646 households, including 2,407, where grandparents were raising their grandchildren. The team of investigators used information from the National Survey of Children’s Health that gathered data from 2016 to 2018. This national study examined the physical and emotional health of children ages 3 to 17, concluding that grandparents who step in to raise their grandchildren are overcoming unique challenges and doing it successfully.
Catherine can certainly identify with the challenges that come with caring for grandchildren. One thing she and her husband have experienced is the “reluctancy at times for the grandchildren to accept [us], their grandparents, as their ‘real parents’ since they still see and want to honor their biological parents. Often their feelings are taken out on us. You have to develop some pretty wide shoulders to handle this and not take it personally or become bitter. Many times grandparents can feel alone or isolated as other ‘normal’ families may not quite understand the challenges.”
Another challenge, says Catherine, is “dealing with the damage that sometimes results from the parents not being present and in contact with the children. When they are in contact with the kids, they don’t necessarily keep the best interests of the child in mind. And as the child becomes older, questions arise as to if they can live with their parents. It can be hard for them to understand how this may not be the best situation.”
But joys are there too. “Seeing my granddaughters thrive in a stable and loving environment, growing in their relationship with Jesus . . . that far outweighs the challenges,” says Catherine. “It has taught me total dependence on God. I feel God has placed us in this situation to help us grow and to understand more about His relationship with us as His children.”
The task is not without discouragement. At those times, she says, “I will go on a long walk in the woods, pray out loud, read the Psalms, or talk with a friend who has taken on foster children and can identify with some of the challenges.”
Evidence suggests that even when grandparents have their own unique financial and health challenges, they can provide an environment in which their grandchildren can thrive. In fact, many grandparents raising grandchildren report that they would perform the same role again if given the chance.4
Children who are products of such a relationship may, as adults, agree with the study’s findings. Having their grandparents raise them was a positive experience. “I went to live with my grandparents when I was in middle school because my parents were going through a divorce,” shares one granddaughter. “My grandparents had a safe, stable, loving, and faith-filled home. I loved when they would share their life experiences with me of a simpler time, and I have carried that appreciation for their generation into my adult life. I think multigenerational relationships are a gift and both grandparents and grandchildren benefit.”
Grandparents play a vital role in bringing health, healing, and, most of all, hope to their grandchildren as they face life’s most difficult challenges. Their importance cannot be overestimated. However, they, too, need to be seen and supported in this challenging journey. At the end of the day, grandparents can be God’s hands and feet and help to reflect God’s heart.
Grandfamilies.org provides a directory of national and state-specific resources and support groups.
Focusonthefamily.com/grandparenting: Articles and tips that extend from those new to grandparenting to grandparents raising their grandchildren
AARP.org/relationships/friends-family/info-08-2011/grandfamilies-guide-getting-started.html: A complete document that lists what a grandparent raising grandchildren may need as well as helpful tips and information on legal documents, finances, health insurance, education, and child care.
1 Eli Rapoport, Nallammai Muthiah, Sarah A. Kiem, Andrew Adesman, “Family Well-being in Grandparent Versus Parent-headed Households,” Pediatrics 146, no. 3 (2020): e20200115.
3 Not their real names.
4 J. P. Lent and A. Otto, “Grandparents, Grandchildren, and Caregiving: The Impacts of America’s Substance Abuse Crisis,” Generations 42, no. 3 (2018): 15-22; B. Hayslip, Jr., and P. L. Kaminski, “Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Practice,” Gerontologist 45, no. 2 (2005): 262-269.
Taking care of someone is the foundation of relationships. We make a meal for our spouse. We shop with our daughter. We go fishing with our dad. We teach our son how to tie his shoe. These caregiving activities help us connect with each other. Yet caregiving can be challenging, particularly when it becomes an additional layer on top of an already-busy life.
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in 1987 as a way of recognizing caregivers and their unique needs. “For most,” she says, “it is a rewarding and fulfilling endeavor; yet it often requires great personal sacrifice of time, energy, and income.”1
More people are entering into this phase of life when children are still in the home, but elderly parents are in need of assistance. To gain some insight, we spoke with four Adventist women currently caring for their aged parents.
Caregiver1: My mother and stepfather live about20minutes from me. My stepfather had a stroke seven months ago. Since then, he’s has been in and out of the hospital or rehab.
Caregiver 2: I care for my 94-year-old father who lives in Canada. I travel there for several months at a time to assist him. More recently I’ve been with him while he was in the hospital needing additional care.
Caregiver 3: We went to visit my parents following the COVID-19 lockdowns. While we were there, my father unexpectedly passed away. The challenges then arose as to the care of our aged mother.
Caregiver 4: My husband was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, so I became his primary caregiver. He passed away 14 months later. Soon after, my 95-year-old mother moved near me, and lives in an assisted living home. I’m there daily to help with her care.
Caregiver 2: A few years ago I helped my dad pack up his country property, placing it on the market and moving him to a senior living facility. I did have a sibling and other relatives nearby who pitched in to help, but I felt the burden of coordinating everything.
Caregiver 3: I completely understand. Since my father passed away, we’ve been helping my mom prepare her home for sale. My siblings and I live far away from our childhood home, so we have been making plans for her to move closer to us. Moving my mom has its own complications, since she may not be able to stay long-term. All of this is still being decided and has been very stressful for us, and confusing for her.
Caregiver 2: Helping from a distance is tricky. I find myself calling Dad’s pharmacy when a delivery is overlooked, arranging foot-care visits, or phoning at a precise time to wake him up (as a backup to his alarm clock) before an important appointment. So I have two calendars: one for my own life, and one for everything going on in Dad’s life.
Caregiver 4: I’ve been more fortunate. As a retired nurse, I was able to help my husband as we arranged cancer treatment and medical care. I knew which doctors to turn to and was able to understand and advise about medical procedures, tests, and treatments. I could keep him at home, give him his medicines, and do some of the medical care. Now that my mother has moved near me, I’m able to go to her care facility nearly every day. Each Sabbath I help her dress and do her hair so she can attend church with me.
Caregiver 1: I’m in similar circumstances. Since my mom doesn’t drive, I take her to see my stepfather about every other day. At first, because of the pandemic restrictions, she wasn’t able to visit. I would go to take clean clothes and toiletries. When the restrictions lifted, she became a regular visitor. In addition, I take my mom to doctor’s appointments, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, and pick up groceries. I also pick up meals from restaurants to eat together.
Caregiver 3: The to-do list is never-ending. Making critical decisions for one’s parent feels strange when you’re used to the role of the child. It is a helpless feeling when there is only so much you can do.
Caregiver 2: It’s remarkably draining to try to comfort and encourage someone else when you yourself are running on empty. I feel guilty when so much of my attention and energy is spent on “solving things” that I often have little time left to just sit and chat with Dad, appreciating the quiet moments together.
Caregiver 4: It’s completely 24/7. Even so, I always considered it a privilege to help care for my husband and was glad I could be the one there to do it. During my nursing career I cared for many patients who were difficult, even mean. My husband was so pleasant, which made it easier. Someone will likely care for me one day, and I hope I’ll be a pleasant person to care for.
Caregiver 2: The feelings are real and all-consuming. I feel worn down. I’m torn because even though I’m doing everything humanly possible, I want to do more. There’s guilt because my husband receives teary FaceTime calls—the distance is an emotional strain. There’s frustration with the significant gaps in the health-care system. There’s anxiety that I won’t be able to solve the things that need solving, as well as whether Dad will receive competent care. Additional guilt comes when I have to fly away and leave behind someone who’s so frail, vulnerable, and alone. Add the resentment that while I’m carrying this massive burden and one sibling helps in small ways, the other chooses not to be involved.
Caregiver 3: Taking care of my mom’s physical needs are less significant at this point compared to the emotional support she needs. To see her grieving the loss of her husband and the loss of an independent life simultaneously is heartbreaking for both of us.
Caregiver 1: Yes, this experience has been emotionally and physically draining for my mother as well. She has a harder time getting around and never anticipated she would be in the role of a nurse’s aide at this time in her life.
Caregiver 1: My biggest surprise is the great relationship I have found with my mom. We have not spent so much time together—just the two of us—since I was in high school. I realized how compatible we are and alike in our habits.
Caregiver 2: My husband is always ready to listen and encourage me. We’re blessed to have local friends near my Dad who are caring, pray for us, and offer to help with tasks I can’t manage from a distance. I have many friends who are also in the same stage of life, dealing with elderly parents, so there’s a certain sense of camaraderie.
Caregiver 3: My husband has been an incredible support!
Caregiver 4: Before my husband passed away, we moved in with my daughter. Having her to talk with or help me with meals or paperwork was a big help and encouragement.
Caregiver 1: I’m not usually very emotional, but dealing with this situation for so many months has made me realize that I need to take a nap when it feels like too much, or order takeout when the days are busy.
Caregiver 2: Know that you’re doing your best, even if it doesn’t feel perfect. Life throws a lot of curveballs. Focus on the situation at hand and make the best choices you can from the available options. Plan to spend time with your loved one that focuses on sharing memories, apart from all the talk of medical needs and logistics. That diversion helps their spirit as well as your own.
Caregiver 3: Talk to your loved ones about the future and what care they may need. Trying to move from a larger home setting in the midst of loss and grief is complex and complicated.
Increasingly more people are in the position of caring for family members, whether because of aging, illness, or special needs. “Caregivers are the invisible front line,” says the director of the Rosalynn Institute. “They are the scaffolding on which our health-care system is built. . . . Caregiving can bring happiness, but without the proper supports, it can also be stressful and isolating.”2
Despite the challenges, one caregiver concluded: “It’s a privilege to care for them in a way no institution could and let them know that even though they may feel their abilities are diminished, they’re still incredibly valued and wanted. Our parents spent years of sleepless nights and worries while raising us, so this shorter phase is truly the least we can do in return.”
1 Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers, “From Caregiving to Caregiver: Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Strengthens Effort to Better Advocate for Caregivers,” Nov. 30, 2020.