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Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Are Struggling with Their Own Health Problems

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted September 22, 1999

Scrambling after a toddler is a challenge for anyone.

But for the skyrocketing number of grandparents raising children in the United States, it's not just a workout -- it hurts.

In a new study by Berkeley, and the University of Toronto, half of such senior citizens reported physical limitations that interfered with completing even common daily tasks. The new findings will appear in the September issue of the "American Journal of Public Health."

"A 70-year-old who is quite sedentary and in a lot of pain may avoid climbing stairs and doing a lot of walking," said Meredith Minkler, a Berkeley public health professor. "It's a whole different matter with a two-year-old to take care of."

These days, many grandparents raise children. Minkler calls it one of the most remarkable demographic changes in American society over the last few decades.

"The number of children living with grandparents jumped 44 percent in the 1980s," she said. "In many parts of the country, the foster care system would collapse if it were not for the work of the older generation."

Despite the fact that grandparents try to provide excellent care, it isn't easy on them, according to the study authored by Minkler and Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson of the University of Toronto.

While in the last 20 years there has been a steady decline in the number of older Americans reporting health problems that affect daily activities, grandparents raising grandchildren appear to be one group still at risk, according to the study.

By looking at data from the 1992-1994 National Survey of Families and Households, the study found that grandparents with custody of children were 50 percent more likely to experience difficulty doing one or more common tasks. They also were significantly more likely to report lower satisfaction with their health.

Esme and Minkler attribute the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren to public health epidemics and poverty.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that, by the year 2000, up to 150,000 children will be orphaned by AIDS alone," Minkler said. "Add to this the drug epidemic and the radically increasing number of women incarcerated with the longer length of stay, plus teen pregnancy, poverty, unemployment and mental health problems, and you can see why so many children need care."

The vast majority of these children are infants or toddlers when grandparents begin care, said Minkler. This means substantial lifting and other difficult physical labor.

The study supported by the Commonwealth Fund found more than 50 percent of custodial grandparents had trouble doing heavy housework, 41 percent with climbing stairs, 39 percent with walking more than six blocks and 17 percent with moving about inside the house. More than 43 percent also reported they had health problems that made working for pay difficult.

Minkler is quick to say that, despite pain and suffering, grandparents still are giving children what they need.

"I am continually impressed by the length grandparents go to so they can provide a good education and happy childhood for their grandchildren," she said. "They are definitely rising to the challenge."

She said society needs to help out, from providing simple devices such as canes and walkers to remodeling houses to make them more accessible.

Minkler also said recent welfare reforms were not written with grandparents in mind.

"If a young mother hits her work requirement limit without a job, she may feel pressure to turn the children over, throwing more grandparents into difficult situations," she said.

Grandparents also have a tendency to put youngsters first when it comes to health, she said.

"They may be religious about getting medical and psychological care for their grandchildren, but they can neglect themselves," said Minkler. "Physicians are reporting seeing older women with diabetes, hypertension and other problems that had been well in hand suddenly going out of control.

"The common denominator for these patients is that they are now raising grandchildren."


September 22 - 28, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 7)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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