Grandparenthood as a separate identity is a fairly recent phenomenon. Up until the beginning of the 20thcentury, grandparenting and parenting often overlapped. High fertility rates and lower life expectancy meant that many parents were still raising children when the first grandchild arrived. Therefore, there was little novelty in having a baby around – much less, time, energy, or other resources. As couples began marrying and starting families earlier and their parents began living longer and having fewer children, a new family life stage emerged – grandparenthood (Newman, 1999).

Grandparenting Style

In a study of more than 500 grandparents, Cherlin and Furstenberg (1986) identified three types of grandparenting styles: remote, companionate, and involved.

Remote grandparents (30 percent) were not closely or intimately involved in their grandchildren’s lives. Most of them did not visit their grandchildren frequently, usually because either they lived far away or because the parents were divorced, a factor found to be especially true for the grandparents on the father’s side.

Most (55 percent) of respondents were companionate grandparents. They described their relationship as being close, affectionate, and playful. Companionate grandparents tend to live close by and regularly interact with their grandkids. They fit the profile of the idea grandparent for most people – being there when they were needed, loving and close to the children, but not interfering with respect to disciplining and parenting the child. They viewed their role to be friends with the grandkids and to have fun.

The involved grandparents were the minority (16 percent) of the respondents and were often drafted for the role they had in their grandchildren’s lives through crisis or difficult situations, such as parental death or divorce. Involved grandparents play an active parenting role, setting limits, enforcing them, and disciplining grandchildren when necessary.

Social Support in Grandparenting Relationships

The type of support that grandparents give their grandchildren depends on numerous factors, such as distance, their age and health, relationship with the parents, and so forth. Atchley and Barusch (2004) identified several important functions or roles that grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren. First, the simple act of being there provides emotional support to grandchildren and children alike. The presence of grandparents provides a sense of continuity, security, and longevity in the family. A second role of grandparents is that of family historian. Grandparents are often the keepers of the family knowledge and traditions, passing down the stories that map out a family’s larger journey through time. Third, grandparents often service as family crisis managers. Divorce, death, severe illness, accidents, or other disasters can strike and create chaos in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Grandparents often step in and provide assistance – childcare, housing, transportation, money, and – perhaps most important – love, a shoulder to cry on, and their attentive presence. Fourth, grandparents sometimes act as arbitrators in disputes between children and grandchildren. Having a grandparent wiling to listen about family matters can be a way for children and grandchildren to safely blow off steam, and grandparents may in turn be able to mediate on behalf of both parities. Fifth, grandparents also may be a source of values. In one study, children identified the time they spent with their grandparents as being key to forming their personal identity, including their moral beliefs and family ideals (Roberto & Stroes, 1992). Finally, in extreme cases, grandparents can become caretakers or surrogate parents of grandchildren.

Grandparents Raising Grandkids

Over the past few decades the United States has witnessed a steady rise in grandparent-headed households, more than doubling in number since 1970. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1970, 2.2 million (3.2 percent) American children lived in a household maintained by a grandparent (Casper & Bryson, 1998). By 2000, this number had risen to 4.5 million (6.3 percent) children (AARP, 2004). In about one-third of these homes, the grandparents were the primary caregivers and no parents was present (AARP).

Most grandparent caregivers are between the ages of 55 and 64, with about 23 percent over age 65 (AARP, 2004). About half (51 percent) identify themselves as white, 38 percent as African American, and 13 percent as Hispanic. One-fourth of grandparent caregiver had income levels below poverty. A number of reasons have been given for the rise of grandparent-headed households, including increasing drug abuse among parents, teen pregnancy, divorce, the rapid rise of single-parent households, mental and physical illnesses, AIDS, crime, child abuse and neglect, and incarceration (Casper & Bryson, 1998).

Grandparent caregivers face a number of challenges. Often they do not have recognized legal status, which makes it difficult for them to enroll the grandchildren in school or make medical decisions for them. As such, grandparents find themselves in the position of having to navigate the legal and welfare systems for help, negotiating Medicaid, Social Security, or foster are funding. Grandparents who are still working must juggle work schedules with day-care and after-school programs. For many grandparents, the struggle is simply the issue of keeping up with young people. Not surprisingly, many grandparents experience higher than normal stress levels and poorer health status than before they took on the caregiving role. Even still, most grandparents raising grandchildren report that they d not regret their decision and appreciate the love and companionship the children bring into their lives (Quadagno, 2002).

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.