Kinship Caregiving:
When Grandparents are Primary Caregivers

When people hear the term “family caregiver,” they typically associate it with an adult son or daughter caring for their ailing or elderly parent or grandparent, but caregiving also encompasses caring for children (special needs or not), and adults of any age who are not capable of caring for themselves. One special kind of family caregiving, though, is called “kinship caregiving,” and it refers to older adults who are caring for younger relatives.

Blog Art - Black and white photo. Trust family hands of child son and father on nature outdoor

As the daughter of a single, working, mother, I experienced a hint of this, as my grandparents were my caregivers until I was old enough to be enrolled in professional childcare programs, and even then, they were my caregivers in the hours between daycare ending and my mother coming home from work.

For many families, however, kinship caregiving isn’t just when Grandma and Grandpa babysit. It’s when Grandma and Grandpa are the full-time primary caregivers. There are more than 2.7 million children in the United States who are being cared for by older family members. One such family includes my friend Charlotte, who cares for her granddaughter. Charlotte is a retired teacher, which means she has the time to spend on her grandchild, but she’s also on a fixed income, just as many retired people are, which means she has to pay close attention to all the things that cost money.

It also means that Charlotte has to take special care of herself. All caregivers are prone to putting the wellbeing of those they care for ahead of their own, but kinship caregivers are even more likely to let their physical, mental, and emotional health suffer in order to provide for the grandchildren in their charge.

It’s easy to suggest that caregivers like Charlotte join play groups and the PTA just like younger parents, but as an older adult, these types of caregivers often lack the stamina for a lot of activities, or they are limited by not being able to physically lift children as the kids grow older, or by not being able to drive at night.

There’s also the worry of what might happen to her grandchild if Charlotte should become too old or frail to care for her. Yes, this is something all parents fear, but for those who are leading “grandfamilies,” it’s a concern that can’t be ignored. This is especially true because not all grandparents have legal custody of the grandchildren they’re raising.

Fortunately, there are many benefits of raising a young child in your older years. Charlotte tells me often that her granddaughter (I’m not naming her here intentionally) “keeps her young.” Because she is the primary caregiver of a six-year-old, Charlotte is up to date on all the latest music, movies, clothing, and hobbies that interest children. She’s even getting exercise by being an adult helper in her granddaughter’s beginning ballet class.

There are benefits for the child as well. Because she’s being cared for by her grandparents, she still has access to the rest of her extended family – all the aunts and uncles and cousins she might have lost contact with if she went into foster care. Studies have shown that children who are cared for by family members – even older family members – experience more stability in their lives than those who are not. Remaining part of an extended family is one factor in this stability.

While kinship care is nothing new – grandparents and other relatives have been taking on the raising of young children who aren’t their own since the dawn of time – what is relatively new is that there’s an entire culture and collection of resources devoted to such relationships.  The Child Welfare Information Gateway is one source of information and assistance, but every state offers something through their child welfare systems or child protective services (I know that has an ominous ring to it, but they do a lot more than taking children away from parents). is another site with a wealth of information.

My friend Charlotte is just one grandmother who is a primary caregiver. My own grandparents took on the responsibility for three of my cousins after their father – my only uncle – died at the age of forty. They were eventually returned to their mother’s care, but some children stay with their grandparents for their entire lives. Older adults are caring for young children around the country and throughout the world and while it’s sad that such relationships are sometimes necessary, it’s also fortunate that we live in a time when they’re given the support and assistance they need!

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