Grandfamilies cut across class and ethnic groups

Caregiving provided by grandparents serves as a safety net for children in need of parenting regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Approximately 2.9 million grandparents make breakfast, organize their grandchildren's activities, arrange doctor's appointments, help with homework, and worry about how they are going to afford college coupled with their everyday household expenses.

Since the 1970s, the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States has rapidly increased. Sometimes grandparent caregiving is a formal arrangement, including foster care or adoption. Many times, grandparent caregiving is an informal arrangement that might occur in a multi-generational home or take place outside of the family home due to social conditions such as addiction, incarceration, child abuse, neglect and even the death of a biological parent or parents.

"Grandfamilies" cut across class and ethnic groups, but they are particularly prevalent among African Americans. Historically, African Americans have preserved their family units by caring for their relatives. Compared with non-Hispanic whites, African Americans are three times more likely to raise their grandchildren. In fact, African American grandmothers represent a large group among grandparent caregivers.

For some grandparents, caregiving is a rewarding experience. But for many grandparents, caregiving occurs under difficult circumstances. Compared with non-caregiving peers, grandparents who raise their grandchildren have more extensive health problems. When there are limited resources – whether finances, time or energy – grandparents tend to prioritize their grandchildren over themselves.

In March 2019, local news outlets reported on the plight of an African American grandmother in Washington, D.C. who took custody of her three great-grandchildren when her granddaughter couldn't care for them. To ensure a stable environment for her great-grandchildren, she used a portion of her rent money to buy food and clothing for school. This great-grandmother's approach backfired, and was left hoping that a good Samaritan would help her keep a roof over her kid's head. If evicted, the family will have to seek refuge in a homeless shelter. The great grandmother said, "from babies to grand-babies to great grand-babies, I've been going and going for so long. My body is tired, but I'm not going to give up."

Maternity is a matter of fact, but sometimes grandparenting is a matter of circumstance.

To address the physical, emotional and financial needs of grandmothers and grand families, including the African American great-grandmother in Washington, D.C. who stepped up to raise her grandchildren when their mother was unable to do so, it's imperative government, social workers, health care providers, community-based organizations and other stakeholders provide opportunities for these families to build and realize security and to develop fulfilling and lasting relationships that keep the family together.

This story is part of an ongoing series by the Diverse Elders Coalition, looking at different segments of the senior population.

Angie Boddie is the director of Health Programs for National Caucus and Center on Black Aging (NCBA).