Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and COVID-19: Overlaying Risks, Uncertain Outcomes

During the pandemic, grandparents raising grandchildren (GRG) and associated risks of COVID-19 as some schools reopen have attracted little national attention. Some notice has been paid to the need to keep grandchildren separated from grandparents, mostly in the context of those who do not live together.

Articles mention children “bringing home” the coronavirus from school or daycare to family members, but usually regarding those co-residing due to older adult caregiving needs (not of grandchildren being dependent upon the grandparents for primary care). With all of the teeth-gnashing over this pandemic, grandfamilies in which grandparents are solely responsible for their grandchildren have barely hit the radar.

As we await research reporting the realities of the pandemic experience on GRG, some outcomes can be logically surmised based on what we do know about COVID-19 and about GRG, which suggest the overlay of risks will only worsen the plight of these grandfamilies.

Grandfamily Facts

The number of children being raised by grandparents in the United States doubled between 1970 and 2010, and now almost 6 million children live in grandparent-headed households. Approximately 2.6 million of these children live in grandparent homes where no parent is present.

Research suggests that most grandparents choose to raise their grandchildren instead of having them placed in formal non-relative foster care. For every child in foster care with relatives, there are 20 children being raised by grandparents or other relatives outside the foster care system. It is hard to know, but quite plausible that the pandemic is adding to the number of GRG.

GRG have exacerbated parenting tasks—even without COVID-19. A large number of GRG provide care to multiple grandchildren simultaneously and more than 36 percent have done so for more than five years. This is significant considering the disparities with regard to health diagnoses, mental–behavioral health diagnoses, special needs and developmental disabilities, as well as histories of trauma experienced within these grandfamilies.

Profiles of GRG include higher rates of aging-related diseases and chronic health issues, such as coronary heart disease, physical disabilities, asthma and diabetes. Grandchildren being raised by grandparents tend to have higher rates of physical health problems too, such as asthma and epilepsy. Under normal circumstances, GRG are at higher risk for illness due to age, stress and income levels.

Older adults with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to contracting, dying from or having lifelong complications from COVID-19, which places grandfamilies at greater risk for catastrophic health issues leading to unstable and fractured family units. GRG are usually the caregivers of last resort, so planning for a scenario wherein they are unable to raise their grandchildren can be very stressful. Weighing the risks for schools re-opening, even partially, makes it that much harder for these families to know what is best for them.

Approximately 57 percent of GRG experience depression, while at least 10 percent of their grandchildren have some type of emotional or behavioral health problem (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety). Much information has come out that indicates mental or behavioral health issues for people across all age groups have skyrocketed during the pandemic, including an increase in suicide rates.

Older adults, who are at higher risk for isolation and loneliness, have experienced a significant increase in these feelings due to social and physical distancing. Young people, too, have been shown to have increased rates of depression and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic—directly related to disruptions in routines and social and physical distancing as a result of school closures, remote learning, lack of socialization and extracurricular activities.

These factors increase the stress and interaction dynamics within GRG households. It is also worth noting the reciprocal relationship between health and mental health status and how these conditions can feed into one another, which complicates school reopenings and the implications on grandfamilies.

It is known that 75 percent of GRG report problems caring for a child with disabilities. The most common disabilities include learning or intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism and fetal alcohol effects. Disabilities are more prevalent in families living in poverty and in single (grand)parent households.

Children and (grand)families living with these conditions typically rely heavily upon supports offered through the public education system, including Individualized Education Plans. When these kids are out of school and support systems are not offered remotely, kids and families struggle. However, underlying disabling conditions also place individuals in a higher risk category for COVID-19, again complicating decisions about going back to school.

Also, GRG have higher rates of poverty and food insecurity; 21 percent of grandfamilies live in poverty and 78 percent face financial hardships Prior to the onset of the pandemic, 36 percent of GRG older than age 60 were employed, many having delayed retirement because of the costs and responsibilities of raising their grandchildren. It is likely that many GRG have been laid off or have had to transition to working remotely during this pandemic, which may have increased the economic insecurity of these grandfamilies.

And, GRG are more prevalent in Latinx and Black communities, whereas white families have the lowest proportion of children raised in grandparent-headed families. This is significant because the Latinx cohort is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population, and these same groups are at higher risk for contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Complicating these challenges is the history of trauma experienced by grandchildren being raised by their grandparents (e.g., physical or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, domestic violence, and exposure to violent crime and illegal activity associated with substance abuse). Such trauma histories are often linked to the reasons grandchildren end up being raised by their grandparents. The most common reasons for GRG include: death (possibly increasing due to COVID-19), incarceration and substance abuse (both likely exacerbated in recent years due to the national opioid epidemic), mental illness, abuse or neglect and abandonment by the natural parent(s).

Another big challenge for GRG are the generation gaps that make care difficult when older adults are not current with youth fads, technologically savvy or knowledgeable about school subjects and teaching methods. Despite pandemic-induced changes in school modalities, GRG remain responsible for ensuring the education of their grandchildren, including overseeing whichever venue is used this school year (in-person, online, hybrid, etc.). Placing greater responsibility on GRG to organize, monitor and teach grandchildren may be a burden that is too much for grandparents to handle.

Remote Learning Tasks Pile onto Already Full Plates

If these grandfamilies live in school districts that are under-resourced and ill-equipped to support remote learning and address the socioeconomic and emotional/behavioral needs of the students, these grandfamilies may be left behind, in more dire straits than they were prior to the pandemic. Even in 2020, there are limitations with Internet access and digital devices in some households, especially among lower-income and older generation households.

Having to provide these resources, possibly without support from schools with limited means, adds to academic challenges. These factors increase the risk in grandfamilies for anti-social emotions or behaviors, poor educational outcomes, weak peer and social interactions, and negative family functioning.

Under typical circumstances, taking on a later life parenting role presents challenges to older adults facing their own aging issues; simultaneously, the grandchildren have unique developmental needs. These intergenerational concerns draw attention to disciplines across legal, health, education and human services systems and need to be more fully understood to optimize grandfamilies’ quality of life. Professionals across disciplines have their work cut out for them when it comes to supporting this vulnerable subgroup of the population.

That said, the media has started to look at this issue and highlight efforts to address the needs of GRG. It has not only been the closures of schools and daycare facilities due to COVID-19 that have made things worse for GRG, but also many of the social services that GRG rely upon are harder, if not impossible, to access. Ongoing efforts continue through the pandemic at state and federal levels to leverage assistance to GRG.

Just last month, Sens. Susan Collins (R–ME) and Bob Casey (D–PA) of the Senate Special Committee on Aging sent a letter to Secretary Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), regarding a report recently released by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, “Child Welfare and Aging Programs: HHS Could Enhance Support for Grandparents and Other Relative Caregivers.” They wrote the letter out of concern for HHS’ rejection of the recommendations in the report to “share information and best practices with states related to federal programs designed to assist grandparent and older relative caregivers.”

They pleaded with HHS to reconsider the recommendations and move forward with implementing actions to complement the 2018 Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, to ensure grandfamilies can access the assistance they need to overcome challenges brought on by the pandemic. Other efforts continue to garner support for GRG in the form of subsidies and services to help keep families intact and out of the foster care system, such as mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and in-home parenting programs.

Nancy Kelley is a professor and the David Scott Diamond professor of Public Affairs & Community Service in the Grace Abbott School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska, in Omaha.