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Sandwiched Grandparents

Kimberly Fowler
By Kimberly FowlerFebruary 6, 2017

With the rise of baby boomers and the increasing number of caregivers in America, it’s easy to lose sight of caregivers who are outliers. In the world of caregiving, where everyone needs some form of support, it’s the seniors who are the sole providers and caregivers of their grandchildren who are experiencing the greatest need.

Read more about this population of “sandwiched grandparents.”

Financial Challenges of Being Sandwiched Grandparents

“Nationwide, 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren, and about one-fifth of those have incomes that fall below the poverty line,” PBS News reports.

So at a time when they should be saving for retirement or perhaps even enjoying it, an increasing number of grandparents are taking over care because their children are:

  • Ill
  • Incarcerated
  • Passed away
  • Serving their country overseas
  • Or are otherwise unable to care for their children

In a recent interview, Chicago resident Debra Aldridge told PBS News that when she “became her grandson’s primary caregiver, she was making $7.50 per hour as a cook. The alternative for the newborn, she was told, was to put him up for adoption.”

University of Toronto professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, is an expert in the phenomena of grandparents raising grandchildren in North America. Fuller-Thomson says in an interview:

“You should be saving for retirement; instead, you’re spending your savings and it’s very hard to get back to work.” She adds, “People who are older and living on fixed incomes really have a hard time stretching to meet clothing and bigger accommodation issues like having a larger home, and child-care issues.”

But despite these personal challenges, Chicago resident Aldridge, like many grandparents in her situation, stepped up. “I took one look at the little fella, and that was it,” she told PBS News. “I couldn’t let go.”

Most of these grandparents did not prepare financially for the circumstances they find themselves in, which is pushing many of them to the brink of poverty. Mary Elizabeth Hughes, one of the authors of the study “All in the Family: The Impact of Caring for Grandchildren on Grandparents’ Health,”reports that“caregiving grandparents may reduce hours of paid employment, which may lead to financial distress.”

According to The Star, the trend is also not limited to America. “A growing number of Canadian grandparents are caregivers of their grandchildren… [and] most of these caregivers are single females with limited incomes.”

The Mental and Physical Challenges of Caregiving

Financial distress isn’t the only concern for caregiver grandparents. Caring for children at an advanced age can have a toll on their health.

“It’s challenging trying to do the things of a 30-year-old when I’m nearly 80,” Margaret Claus, who cares for her 10-year-old great-granddaughter, tells The Star.

Ultimately, Hughes found that “as kin caregivers, grandparent caregivers receive fewer institutionally based supports than non-kin caregivers; this deficit may cause grandparents, especially those who lack other resources, to feel overwhelmed by the demands of grandchild care.”

In the study “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States: Changing Family Forms, Stagnant Social Policies,Lindsey A. Baker found that “grandparent caregivers suffer higher than average rates of activity limitation, chronic conditions, and poor subjective well-being.”

The study found that the demand of caring for grandchildren, especially young grandchildren, can take a toll on the grandparent’s health, compounded by an increased exposure to infections and lack of sleep. Baker found that poor health is compounded by a reduced time for care, including to attend doctor’s appointments, enjoy hobbies and socialize.

Sandwiched Grandparents Say Rewards Outweigh the Risks

For caregiver grandparents, the rewards of caring for their grandchildren far outweigh the risks to themselves. “I feel like I stopped aging when I got Ellie,” Claus tells The Star. “My body got older; my mind didn’t.”

For many sandwiched grandparents, the benefits aren’t quantifiable. Having closer relationships and ensuring your family is well cared for are in themselves benefit enough. Interestingly, some studies show that grandparents can lead an active, healthier lifestyle because they have been thrust into the role of caregiver. The benefits are evident for the children as well:

“Children raised by grandparents tend to do better than those who end up in foster care,” and “they are twice as likely to report good emotional health and half as likely to experience mental illness,” Fuller-Thomson tells The Star. “They’re just better equipped to cope with life.”

Resources for Sandwiched Grandparents

If you know a sandwiched grandparent who could use some assistance caring for children, try these resources first:

Do you know sandwiched grandparents who should be saving for retirement, but are currently caring for their grandchildren? We’d like to hear your family’s experiences and stories in the comments below.

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Kimberly Fowler
Kimberly Fowler
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