Healthy Aging Column – May be the Second Time Around, but Parenting Grandchildren Comes with Changes

Howard, age 64, spends a lot of his time planning – not for retirement, but for child care. With his wife, Helen, they are caring for their grandchildren, ages 2 and 4. Their daughter Shelly is an addict and has had no contact with the family for more than a year. Helen worries that the situation stresses Howard’s heart condition, she’s angry at Shelly and she is confused about making decisions for the benefit of their grandchildren.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Grandparent Information Center, the typical parenting grandparent is female, age 59, and has cared for one grandchild for four-and-a-half years. More than four million American children are being raised by grandparents, double the number a generation ago. The Children’s Defense Fund reported a 51.5 percent increase between 1990 and 1998 of children living with a relative, or 1 in 12. More than 6 million children are living in households headed by a grandparent or other relatives. Colorado Census 2002 data indicated 5.04 percent of children, or 55,575 children, lived in grandparent-headed households.

As a grandparent facing the potential situation, think about what you want to do, what you are able to do and what you must do. Gather information from community resources, and use the knowledge to make informed decisions. Search out information from resources (child protection services, schools, legal, medical, insurance, Social Security) in your community. Be aware that some systems are not set up to recognize a grandparent as the children’s responsible adult. Be patience, honest and persistent in expressing your needs.

It is important that everyone involved understand the implications of legal choices as well as the risks of informal arrangements. If parents agree to give authority without dispute, you face two legal choices. Guardianship and custody give the grandparent parental authority but the parents still have rights. Adoption gives the grandparent all authority and no rights for the birth parents.

Family foster care might be another option. It could provide some child support payments which could ease the financial burden. Keep the issues of custody, support and visitation as three separate issues. Your adult children and their partners have a responsibility for expenses needed for the grandchildren’s upbringing, even if it is being done by someone else. It can create conflict in your relations with your grandchild’s parents, but it will be of help in the grandchild’s need for a caring parent.

Grandparents who find themselves parenting their grandchildren may feel conflicting emotions. They love their grandchildren, wish to maintain family unity or feel a new purpose. The potential exists for satisfaction and joy. Many grandparents say it is a choice to live by the belief that "It’s our family’s responsibility, and we can care for them the best."

They also can experience the other side of the emotional coin. The normal losses that come with aging (loss of income, health or a spouse) may make raising grandchildren responsibilities more difficult or, sometimes, impossible. Retirement funds may be lost or plans put on hold. They must deal with the disappointment that their children did not do better and the fear of losing contact with grandchildren. In some cases, other family relationships deteriorate as the grandparents’ investment of time and money becomes unequally divided. The reality of financial demands on one’s reduced income and lack of medical coverage also are major challenges.

Take care of yourself because your health is critical to your grandchildren’s well being. Caregiving is stressful as you deal with your own – and your grandchildren’s – anger or loss. Keep to your healthy lifestyle, continue recommended health checks and plan for respite to keep up your hope and supportive relationships.

Here are tips to nurture your grandchildren when you also are their "parent."  

Read to the grandchildren every day. Make reading a relaxing activity. Read aloud some funny or interesting parts of your favorite book. Older children might be interested in a riddle book, magazine or newspaper. Look for articles of interest to them beyond the topics of homework.

Help them practice safety by providing needed equipment and role-modeling behaviors.  Buckle seat belts, use car seats properly for the size of the children and be sure they wear helmets and other safety gear when bike riding, skateboarding and rollerblading. Teach safe animal handling whether they know or don’t know an animal.

Keep immunizations up to date. If the children are not covered by health insurance, access other resources for medical care through social services.

Provide nutritious food and prepare meals according to the food-guide pyramid. Do not expect them to eat adult portions, and remember that they need to eat a little more often. Keep the food safe with time and temperature controls and safe storage times. Food-borne illness risks are higher for children and the elderly.

Set a good example by working out disputes without violence and by remembering that words can hurt too. Spanking is an ineffective form of punishment and can be seen as child abuse. Search out classes or information on anger management and discipline skills.

Monitor television, movies, music and computer use by the children. What children see and hear does influence their behavior.

Make your grandchild feel loved and important. A routine between the two of you or a

surprise message of love can affect feelings of self-esteem and hope for the future. Pity,

compensation and shame are not helpful to anyone.

If your grandchild has special needs, seek out services early in their school years or as a preschooler.

To request a free subscription to AARP’s newsletter, "Parenting Grandchildren: A Voice for Grandparents," mail your name and mailing address to AARP Grandparent Information Center, 601 E Street NW, Washington DC 20049; visit their Web site at; or call 1-202-434-2296.

Your local Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office has two fact sheets you can request: "Grandparents as Parents" or "Grandparenting: Legal Rights for Visitation of Grandchildren."

Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available on the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web site at – select Info Online, Consumer and Family, then Healthy Aging.

By Donna Liess, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Weld County