Grandparents often play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren, but in many American families, grandparents also have taken on the significant responsibility of primary caregiver for their grandchildren. The impacts of parental substance abuse and the loss of a parent from opioid overdose, challenges encountered during the COVID pandemic by grandparents acting as primary caregivers for grandchildren, as well as the complex financial and legal system grandparent caregivers must navigate, have drawn national attention to this issue.
To better understand the needs of grandparent caregivers and the nature of their challenges, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh National Center on Family Support (NCFS) performed a detailed analysis of the changing demographics of grandparents living with grandchildren, utilizing data from the 2009–2021 U.S. Census American Community Survey (ACS).
The Shifting Demographics of Grandparent Caregivers
Nationally, as of 2021, approximately 6.7 million grandparents live in a household with their grandchildren. Of those, 2.1 million are primary caregivers for their grandchildren and 4.6 million live with their grandchildren but do not have primary responsibility for their care. While these general population statistics have become well known, more granular detail and sub-population demographics are necessary to target policies and programs to meet the unique needs of grandparent caregivers.
The new University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) report, “National Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Family Support (NCFS) Caregiver Profile: A Closer Look at Grandparents Caring for Grandchildren,” found that the number of grandparents living with grandchildren held relatively steady over the past 12 years, but major changes have occurred in the distribution of grandparents who are responsible for care of their grandchildren and grandparents who live with grandchildren but are not responsible for care.
According to ACS data, the number of grandparents in the United States living with grandchildren but not providing primary childcare has jumped over the last decade, by 587,000, or nearly 15%. The number of grandparents providing care to grandchildren with a parent present in the household has dropped by 521,000 or 29%, and the number of grandparents providing care to grandchildren without a parent present has dropped by 106,000 or 11%.
‘As of 2021, approximately 6.7 million grandparents live in a household with their grandchildren.’
Though the population of grandparents acting as primary caregivers to their grandchildren is shrinking in size overall (from 2.7 to 2.1 million between 2009 and 2021), the remaining grandparent caregivers are older. The number of younger grandparent caregivers (those between ages 30 and 59) is on the decline, while the number of older grandparent caregivers (ages 60 and older) is increasing.
With the U.S. population aging and the number of births among young teens and younger adults declining, this demographic shift is not entirely surprising, but the magnitude of the change is stark. Between 2009 and 2021, the number of grandparents ages 60 and older living with grandchildren increased by:
- 40.6% among non-caregiver grandparents (from 2.1 to 2.9 million),
- 19.7% among grandparent caregivers in a household with a parent present (from approximately 479,000 to 573,700), and
- 20.6% among grandparent caregivers in a household without a parent present (from approximately 399,000 to 481,200).
The new report also sheds light on the challenges faced by grandparents caring for grandchildren without a parent present in the household, who have emerged as a particularly vulnerable group. Compared to grandparents caring for grandchildren with a parent present, those without a parent present are more likely to live below the poverty line, less likely to be employed and have a lower level of educational attainment.
Additionally, grandparent caregivers without a parent present are more likely to be older than age 60 and more likely to be in a longer term caregiving relationship, defined as being a primary caregiver for a year or more. Despite the likelihood of higher caregiving demands on grandparent caregivers without a parent present, this population also is more likely to have a disability than the cohort with parent present in the household.
‘Approximately 1 in 4 grandparents living with grandchildren, regardless of caregiving responsibilities, have a disability.’
Researchers note that the increase in the proportion of grandparents living with and not responsible for grandchildren could indicate increasing strain among “sandwich generation” caregivers, who provide support to an aging parent with disabilities while raising a child.
Nationally, approximately 1 in 4 grandparents living with grandchildren, regardless of caregiving responsibilities, have a disability. Among grandparents living with grandchildren who are not responsible for childcare, 18% report an ambulatory disability (related to walking or climbing stairs), 12% report an independent living disability (related to difficulties performing activities such as going to the doctor’s office or grocery shopping alone), and nearly 7% report a self-care disability (related to bathing or dressing).
Sandwich-generation caregivers often face greater financial and emotional strain compared to caregivers who support an older adult but are not raising a child. With the number of grandparents cohabitating in households with grandchildren on the rise, coupled with the prevalence of disability among this population, it is paramount that we look at policies to support caregiving populations across the lifespan.
National Efforts to Support Grandparent and Family Caregivers
Researchers note that the new report highlights the need to move forward with many of the recommendations proposed in the 2022 National Strategy to Support Family Caregivers, a series of recommendations jointly developed and released by the Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (SGRG) and the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Act Family Caregiving Advisory Council. The SGRG Advisory Council report highlights the needs and challenges faced by grandparents who are primarily responsible for raising a child, such as securing healthcare, legal services, employment, financial assistance and adequate mental health support.
The data in the SGRG Advisory Council report and our NCFS analysis emphasize the importance of moving forward with the RAISE and SGRG Council recommendations and strategies to provide employment, financial support and other key supports to this population, such as:
- Access to respite care
- Availability of legal services to assist with custody issues
- Enhancing workplace protections and flexibility for employed caregivers
- Improving the availability and competency of mental health supports for children and caregivers
- Reducing the administrative and financial burden on grandparent caregivers applying for public assistance programs
- Targeting supports for vulnerable sub-populations such as older grandparents caring for grandchildren without a parent present in the household.
The Pitt NCFS report on grandparent caregivers is part of a series of briefs constructing detailed demographic profiles of different types of caregivers, highlighting current knowledge and key gaps. The reports are intended to inform current and future policymaking, resource allocation and program development to support the unique needs of specific sub-populations of caregivers.
To read the full research report or learn more about the work of the National Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Family Support (NCFS) at the University of Pittsburgh, please visit Pitt NCFS online at www.caregiving.pitt.edu or contact us by email at email@example.com.
Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank Monica Gaydos for her contributions to this article.
Meredith Hughes, JD, MPH, is an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and a senior analyst at the Health Policy Institute at Pitt; Scott Beach, PhD, is the interim director of Pitt’s University Center for Social & Urban Research; Everette James, JD, MBA, is associate vice chancellor for Health Policy and Planning, M. Allen Pond Professor of Health Policy and Management, professor of Health Information Management, and director of the Health Policy Institute at Pitt.
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