Kristina Adams
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.

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.

"My hunch is that part of what can drive the long-term increase is the aging of the baby boomers, may of whom are younger grandparents," Livingston said. "They are able to be there for their grandchildren, assuming their help is needed and they weren't living too far away. I can't prove that, but it seems to be suggestive."

Not easy street

The challenges of multigenerational families are sometimes daunting. Generations United says that other factors can also form such families, including the death of a parent, substance abuse, mental illness or other disability or military deployment. Stress is often a driver of change in household structure.

Pew documented the challenges, too. In households where Grandma or Grandpa provide primary care, families have a lower median household income ($36,000 vs. $48,000) and are more apt to live below the poverty line. That's true of nearly 3 in 10 of those grandparent-caregiver families.

"Many of the parents in these households have characteristics suggestive of the need for family assistance," the report said. "For example, 44 percent had a baby as a teen and 12 percent have a disability. One-fifth (21 percent) are unemployed, 29 percent lack a high school diploma and 22 percent are currently enrolled in school."

Generations United says that "the most common multigenerational household arrangement consists of three generations — typically one or more working-age adults, one or more of their children (who may also be adults), and either aging parent(s) or grandchildren." It has noted that, "once a rarity except in some lower-income ethnic communities, the four- or even five-generation household — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, adult children, their children — is more commonplace and socioleconomically significant."

Among other findings, among children who are primarily cared for by a grandparent, 39 percent are white, 26 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. And children under age 6 are more likely to live with or be cared for by a grandparent.

Worth it

Groves became Aiden's legal guardian close to three years ago, when he was a toddler. She's a single grandma, but far from alone in caring for the little boy, who delights her. Her son, his uncle, has become a kind of father figure for the boy, often taking him places and doing guy stuff.

He's a male role model the boy needs, Groves said.

She has other family members, as well, who are willing to step in and help her when she needs it. Still, she admitted, it's hard to parent the second time around, too. "I have had kids since I was 18 years old. I thought I would be at a different place at this point in my life.

"Did I ever think I would be raising a little boy at this stage? Not in a million years," said Groves. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. He's just a happy person and an awesome kid. That outweighs giving up coming and going as I please. He's worth it."

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