(April 2004) For a growing number of U.S. elderly, the golden years are beginning to resemble the old days in one important respect: caring for young children. Demographers even have a new phrase for the most dramatic examples of this child-care trend—the ‘skipped- generation’ household, where a grandparent and grandchild reside with no parent present.

In 2000, 5.8 million grandparents lived with grandchildren younger than age 18. Of these, 2.4 million served as the grandchildren’s primary caregivers, the U.S. Census Bureau reports (see table). These findings are among a variety of new data on this caregiver trend, which carries challenges for older Americans who contemplated a quiet retirement.

Grandparent Responsibilities, 2000

Total Male Female
All Grandparents living with grandchildren
Grandparent responsible for grandchildren
Grandparent not responsible

Source: T. Simmons and J. Lawler Dye, “Grandparents Living With Grandchildren: 2000” (www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-31.pdf, accessed April 23, 2004).

“The unexpected responsibility of raising children later in life can have dramatic consequences,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national organization in Washington, D.C., that seeks to build bridges between youth and the elderly. Instead of retiring, for example, older people find themselves at increased risk of poverty as they struggle on a limited income to deal with children up through the teen years.

The issue also is gaining visibility as a result of media reports and congressional action. In the 1996 welfare reform law, Congress mandated that the 2000 Census ask questions about grandparent caregivers. The bureau added three questions on the subject in 2000, providing the first data set looking at the grandparent side of the issue, said Jane Lawler Dye, a Census Bureau demographer on fertility and family statistics.

The new data include characteristics of the grandparents who serve as primary caregivers for their grandchildren:

  • Nearly 40 percent have had the job for five years or more.
  • Most grandparent caregivers—60 percent—were under age 60.
  • About 64 percent were women.
  • About 20 percent live in poverty.

More than half (1.3 million) of these caregivers are white, a potentially important finding. “One of the myths is that it’s an inner-city, African American issue,” Butts said. “More well-to-do parents may do this quietly.”

The Most Dramatic Cases

Grandparents who perform these duties with no middle generation, or parent, present in the household at all face the most pressing challenge. More than one-third of the 2.4 million grandparent caregivers reside in these skipped-generation homes.

They may face declining health, limited Social Security income, and decreased mobility. “These people are at an age when they are moving toward retirement. Now they’re planning for a child’s college,” Butts said.

While much information is anecdotal, it is clear that many of these grandchildren and grandparents suffer major crises through a parent or child’s death, incarceration, mental illness, substance abuse, or other difficulties. “This number has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, particularly due to substance abuse,” Butts said. Legal issues of custody and guardianship also can drain finances and time, making even a simple task — such as registering a child for school—an arduous one.

Yet these grandparents end up saving U.S. taxpayers billions. They informally care for about 12 times as many children as the nation’s foster care system, the government’s safety net for these youngsters. “They’re saving our country more than $6.5 billion a year,” Butts said.

Amid these special challenges, several nonprofits and government agencies are stepping in with funding and services. Two nonprofits in Boston have created the GrandFamiliesTM House, where 27 families can find affordable housing and an array of support services. The project began with a study of 50 grandparent caregivers that showed they had major health problems and very low incomes of $5,000 to $15,000 a year.

“We figured the project would break new ground,” said Anne Gelbspan, project manager for the Women’s Institute of Housing and Economic Development, a co-developer of GrandFamiliesTM House. Along with another agency, Boston Aging Concerns, the institute developed a building of mostly three-bedroom apartments in south Boston. “It is specially designed housing,” she said, complete with a central lobby area with security.

Buoyed by this success, Congress is joining the act. A new federal law authorizes national demonstration projects that develop housing for grandparents and grandchildren, according to Generations United. Citing these trends and the new Census Bureau research, Butts said, “People are becoming more aware of the problem.”

Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in education, health, and employment issues.


Tavia Simmons and Jane Lawler Dye, “Grandparents Living With Grandchildren: 2000,” Census 2000 Brief C2KBR-31 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2003), accessed online at www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-31.pdf, on April 23, 2004.

Esme Fuller-Thomson, Meredith Minkler, and Diane Driver, A Profile of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States,The Gerontologist, 37, no. 3 (1997): 406-11, abstract accessed online at http://gerontologist.gerontologyjournals.org/content/vol37/issue3/index.shtml, on April 23, 2004.