by Patricia McBroom
Grandparents have become surrogate parents to many of the nation's children, according to a new Berkeley and University of Toronto study. More than one in 10 grandparents is providing primary care for their grandchildren for a period of at least six months, and typically far longer, the study shows.
The number is higher than expected; it means that at a national level millions of grandparents are involved at some time in their lives as primary caregivers for their children's children, said Meredith Minkler, professor of public health who was principal investigator on the study.
"Grandparent caregiving is not rare," said Minkler. "We knew it was common in many of the large inner-city areas, where estimates suggest that 30 to 50 percent of grandparents are providing primary care.
"But to find that the national rate is this high is quite dramatic," she said.
Moreover, the grandparent care frequently lasted for years. One in five caregivers had done it for 10 years or more, according to the study published in the June issue of the Gerontologist, the journal of the Gerontological Society of America.
Esme Fuller-Thomson of the University of Toronto, who is first author on the study, reported that the team reached its conclusions by studying grandparents interviewed in the National Survey of Families and Households conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 1992 to 94.
From a subsample of 3,477 grandparents, the team developed a demographic profile of those providing primary care for grandchildren living with them, compared to grandparents who may do baby sitting, but do not live with their grandchildren.
The profile shows the typical grandparent caregiver is a married white woman, just under 60 years old, who is living with her husband and her grandchildren (with or without her own children) in an urban area, who has earned a high school degree and whose median household income is $22,000 a year.
Compared to non-custodial grandparents, the caregiver is more likely to be poor, single, less well educated and of minority ethnic background. She is also likely to be female, although a quarter of grandparent care-givers were male, the study found.
The research team, which also includes Diane Driver of the Center on Aging, is particularly concerned about the 23 percent of caregivers living below the poverty line while caring for their grandchildren.
This is a group whose needs have been completely ignored in the provisions of the reform welfare legislation, said Minkler.
"Are we going to send a 60- to 65-year-old woman off to work after two years, while she is raising small children?" she asked.
Minkler is also concerned that if the new welfare plan is implemented, grandmothers who might have had Aid to Families with Dependent Children earlier when they raised their own children would now be ineligible for welfare.
That could be a sizable problem if it turns out that many of the grandparent caregivers are currently receiving welfare, a question Minkler plans to investigate.
Even so, the number living in poverty has now been shown to be much larger than expected, said Minkler. As an indication of growing awareness, the U.S. Census Bureau, which doesn't track people by relationships, plans to count the number of grandparents in its next national survey.
"We know that grandparents' income frequently declines when they take on responsibility for their children's children," said Minkler.
The public health professor urges that grandparent caregiving be supported, not by welfare, but by the more generous payments given to foster parents. Some states, such as New York and Illinois, have begun to make that change.