National Edition

The evolution of families: One-tenth of children now live with a grandparent

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11 2013 1:45 p.m. MDT

Donna Groves kisses her grandson, Aiden, 6. The little boy is one of 3 million American children being raised by grandparents. An estimated 7.7 million children live with grandparents, though most often with at least one of their parents present, as well.

Kristina Adams

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CENTERVILLE — Donna Groves is two generations removed from the boy around whom her days and nights revolve. At a time when many of her friends are taking early retirement or pursuing outside interests they'd put off to raise a family, she is raising her grandson, Aiden.

The 6-year-old just started first grade. So, like many of her younger colleagues — and an increasing share of older ones, too — Groves finds herself juggling work and parenting obligations she thought she'd left behind when her children were grown.

She's not alone. Nearly 8 million American children live with a grandparent, although about 60 percent of those also have at least one of the parents in the house, as well. Aiden is one of about 3 million children who rely on grandparents as primary caregivers, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

Although the number includes parent-headed households where grandparents may also live — the traditional "sandwich" generation that includes parents caring for their minor children and their elderly parents — the vast majority in the report, 71 percent, were households where the grandparents had taken the grandchildren in, with or without parents. The older generation are the heads of the households.

Small, but significant change

In 2000, a little less than 9 percent of American children lived in households with their grandparents. That number in 2011 was 10 percent. Though it's a relatively small increase, it's a "notable change in a relatively short time," said Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher and author of "At Grandmother's House We Stay." The numbers were released last week by Pew.

It's an interesting area to study, she said, because caregiving beyond what Mom and Dad do is a somewhat understudied area. And the numbers hint at the impact of the overall economy on how families evolve and change.

It also harkens back, Livingston noted. "Not everything old is new again. We have had multiple-generational families for a long time. This is a little upsurge."

The report suggests that the recession has sent many parents and their children home to the grandparents. The number jumped, said Livingston, directly after the onset of the recession. And as the economy has improved somewhat, the numbers seem to be leveling off, which she called "suggestive."

What's not as clear, in families with both parents and grandparents, is how the actual caregiving roles are split. Pew's research showed that a larger share of the parents who moved home with their children had disabilities, compared to those families that hadn't moved in with grandparents. At the same time, they also found a larger share were unemployed, teen parents, unmarried, lacked a high school diploma, or could otherwise have been especially impacted by rocky financial times.

Because families evolve, living situations change, too, Livingston said. "Just because they are living with grandparents who are caring for them now, it doesn't mean they will be doing it next year. But it striked me that those providing for most of the daily needs of the grandchildren have been doing it for a while — 55 percent say they've been the person primarily responsible for the child for three years or more."

With only 1 in 5 providing primary care for six months or less, "it suggests this is something a lot more permanent," Livingston said.

The data came from the 2000 Census and the 2005-11 American Community Survey.

The report found that caregiver grandparents are typically younger; more than half of those living with a grandchild are younger than 60 and two-thirds of those who provide primary care for a child are younger than 60. That's the case with Groves.

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