Virus Poses Added Threat to America's 'Grandfamilies'

Virus Poses Added Threat to America's 'Grandfamilies'

By Carly Stern



For grandparents raising kids, quarantining means wrestling with life-or-death questions.

By Carly Stern

For many children, spending time with grandparents is a welcome treat, and for those without a parent as a primary caregiver, it’s a necessity. But in the era of coronavirus and social distancing, it’s a liability.

Older adults are at greater risk of death if they catch the virus, while children can carry it without showing symptoms. In families where grandparents perform typical parental duties, known as “grandfamilies,” staying away from children to reduce risk exposure isn’t possible. It’s a predicament facing a growing number of Americans, according to surveys from the AARP, the nation’s largest nonprofit that caters to older Americans.

The percentage of grandparents who live with their grandchildren nearly doubled between 2002 and 2019.

A 2019 AARP survey found that 11 percent of grandparents share a home with their grandchildren, compared to 6 percent in 2002. Furthermore, nearly half of grandparents living with their grandchildren in 2019 said they were the primary caregiver for at least one of them — marking a 76 percent increase from the 2002 survey. And the sheer number of adults in this arrangement — 1 in 10 grandparents — means that a whole new wave of older caretakers and the children who live with them are now walking on thin ice.

This has played out in a variety of family arrangements. Multigenerational families are considered to be those where more than two generations live under the same roof. They often include a child, a grandparent and at least one other generation, like a working adult, and share caregiving duties or expenses, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. By contrast, grandfamilies are households headed by an older individual or couple who live with related children under the age of 18 — generally with a “skipped generation,” Butts says. In nearly one-third of households where grandparents report living with their grandchildren, the kids’ parents aren’t present.

There was an uptick in multigenerational families beginning in 2008, the start of the last economic downturn, and the increase didn’t level off as the economy recovered. “Families might have come together by need, but they stayed together by choice,” Butts says. Immigration from Latin American and East Asian countries, where it is more common for extended families to live together, has also been a contributor, notes Steven Ruggles, a professor of population studies at the University of Minnesota. Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic drove grandfamily formation as grandparents stepped in to support children of parents who were incarcerated, in treatment or had died, Butts says. 

Elderly woman and a girl, walk wearing antivirus masks to

A whole new wave of older caretakers, and the children who live with them, are now walking on thin ice.

Now, the United States faces a new pandemic that is threatening family fabrics again. Multigenerational families often have flexibility that’s better suited for these times — one generation might live in a backyard granny flat, or the family might send a younger adult to the grocery store. But grandfamilies must navigate a tightrope: Older caretakers have no choice but to stay in close contact with the child. And, explains Butts, because many children came to their grandparents following trauma or loss, offering comfort, security and physical reassurance that everything will be all right becomes paramount.

Tasks that come with risk of exposure, like grocery shopping, can’t be done alone because young children can’t be left at home unsupervised. And many caregivers worry that if they fall ill, there will be nobody there to care for the children, says Butts.

Grandparents are being encouraged by Generations United and other groups to think through “succession plans,” as Butts puts it. Like wills or prenuptial agreements, these are tough conversations to have. But older caretakers must consider questions like which neighbor or distant relative could take the child if something happens to them. Without a plan in place, responsibility will be transferred to already overloaded public systems.

For every one child in the child welfare system who is placed in the care of relatives, there are 19 being raised informally outside the system by grandparents or relatives, according to Butts. Such informal caregivers save taxpayers $4 billion each year, she says. But a sudden surge of cases from COVID-19 would place a huge stress on a foster care system that never reset from the opioid crisis. “It would overwhelm a system that’s already overwhelmed,” Butts says.

Organizations are trying to create grandfamily-friendly solutions and rejig existing services. Meals on Wheels could deliver food for the child as well as prescriptions, while support groups for older adults are meeting by phone so caretakers feel less alone, says Butts. In some ways, the coronavirus has accelerated strides being made prior to the outbreak. Affordable housing communities with resources geared toward grandfamilies were already beginning to crop up nationwide, from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix.

Despite these challenges, Butts argues that the benefits of intergenerational families can be a lighthouse during uncertain times. “They just have a … social fabric [and] emotional fabric that helps them be much more resilient in difficult times,” says Butts. Older Americans who have lived through hard times before have a particular brand of grit, Butts says: “They’re really good at surviving.”

Even so, ironclad mental or emotional resolve can’t beat physical susceptibility. Many older caretakers have faced no choice but to step in and stay close, despite the increased risk caused by the virus. In past crises, togetherness was the antidote to falling apart. Today, that’s no longer necessarily a recipe for survival.