The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is often a very special one. But for a growing number of grandparents, grandparenting really means parenting a second family. Grandparents no longer have the luxury of sending the children home after a weekend visit, because they are assuming the responsibility of raising the grandchildren.

Few of us plan on raising a second family. Undertaking the full-time responsibility for raising a grandchild causes major changes in a grandparent’s life. A grandparent facing the demands of parenting a second time is also struggling with the family conditions that lead to the situation. In addition, this new role often includes physical, emotional, social, legal and financial challenges that were not present when grandparents raised their own children. Respite can provide a much-needed breathing space for grandparents, giving them time to balance caring for their grandchildren with caring for themselves.

Who Are These Families?

The number of grandparent caregivers is increasing. According to the National Census Bureau, in 1996 grandparents without the help of parents were raising over 1.4 million children. This was an increase of 37 percent from the census of 1993. Another 2.6 million children were being raised in three-generation households headed by a grandparent, with at least one parent in the home. However, it is likely that grandparents instead of parents actually are raising many children in three-generation households. Such is the case, for example, when a parent addicted to drugs is in and out of the home, causing disruption and threatening to take the child but not actually being responsible for the child on a regular basis.

The phenomenon of families headed by grandparents is not unique to a particular population group or geographic area. Grandparent caregiving is an issue for a 40-year-old grandparent as well as one who is 70 years old, for African-Americans, Caucasians, American Indians, Latinos and for all communities, whether rural, suburban or urban. In addition, grandparent caregivers represent all socioeconomic groups. The only prerequisite is being a grandparent—and even that may not be necessary, because aunts, uncles, siblings and godparents are also raising children not their own.

The census of 1997 indicates that 33% of grandparent caregivers are under the age of 50, 48% are between the ages of 50 and 64, and 19% are over the age of 65. Forty-eight percent of the children being raised by grandparents or other relative caregivers lived in households headed by a married couple, while single grandmothers or other single female relatives grandfathers or other single male relatives raised 46%, and 6%.

According to 1995 census data, 13.5% of African American children lived with their grandparents, as did 6.5% of Hispanics and 4.1% of whites. In actual numbers, 2.2 million white children lived with their grandparents, as did 1.5 African-American children and 0.6 million Hispanic children.

Legal Considerations

Although grandparent caregivers have physical custody and responsibility for their grandchildren, many do not have legal custody or guardianship. Gaining legal custody can be difficult and expensive, and adopting a grandchild means terminating the rights of the child’s parent. This may be difficult for a grandparent who hopes that someday his or her own adult child will assume responsibility for parenting the grandchild.

Some grandparents may establish themselves as “caretaker relatives” in order to receive public assistance for their grandchildren. It is important to recognize these different legal definitions, because services and insurance are sometimes tied to a person’s legal relationship with a child. But no matter what the legal situation, all grandparents who are raising grandchildren should have access to and can benefit from respite services.

Respite Services to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Chapel Hill Training-Outreach Project
800 Eastowne Drive, Suite 105,
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Phone: (800) 473-1727; Fax: (919) 490-4905
E-mail: — Web:

Why is This Happening?

Grandparents find themselves in the position of raising their grandchildren for a variety of reasons, but one of the most common is substance abuse by the child’s parent. Other reasons include child abuse, neglect and abandonment, teenage pregnancy, death, joblessness, divorce, incarceration, and illness, especially HIV/AIDS.

Most family situations are complex, and families headed by grandparents are no different in that respect. The reasons why a grandparent steps in to care for a grandchild are often many and interrelated. A parent who uses drugs during pregnancy may give birth to a child with special needs. The parent may not be equipped financially or emotionally to care for the child, and if the parent continues to abuse drugs, the child may be neglected or abandoned. With any family or individual, life’s circumstances do not occur in a vacuum, and each family situation is unique.

Although many grandparents continue to hope that their adult child will be able to assume the parental role one day, the reality may be that the grandparent is the only constant parental figure for the grandchild. The parent may move in and out of the child’s life, but the full responsibility for rearing the child may well rest with the grandparent. This is one of many difficulties families encounter.

Difficulties Faced by These Families

Along with the usual demands involved in becoming a parent again, grandparent caregivers may face many other emotional, legal, social and financial challenges. They often lack support services, especially respite services. They may find it difficult to locate affordable housing and legal counsel or to obtain medical care and insurance coverage for their grandchildren. Their new situation may create extreme stress, which in turn may cause physical and mental health problems, such as exhaustion or depression.

While their friends may be looking forward to retirement, grandparent caregivers may be trying to balance work, childcare and parent-teacher conferences. Grandparents who have already retired may be forced to go back to work to cover the expenses of raising a second family. In addition, grandparent caregivers often lack support from peers because of their unique situation. Respite is one form of family support most often needed

How Respite Can Help

The need for respite services by this population is paramount, because many grandparents are “going it alone.” Although they may struggle with their new parenting responsibilities, many are not involved with any social service agency or even with an informal support network. These grandparents have a great need for sustained support, but they may be unfamiliar with respite services, or, if they have heard of respite, may not know where to find the services. They may believe such services are available only to parents. For these reasons, it is crucial that respite services reach out to grandparent caregivers through family service agencies, senior centers, religious institutions and schools. Another important avenue for outreach can be found in local support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren.

Support Groups

Many grandparent caregivers seek out support groups of other grandparent caregivers as a way to combat isolation and to pool resources. In many ways, grandparents raising a second family have lost their peer group. Their contemporaries are not involved in rearing children, and many of their friends and relatives may be unable to handle the challenges of caring for a child again. Support groups offer grandparents who face common problems the opportunity to meet each other and share their experiences, knowledge, strengths and hopes. Parenting classes are also a good way for grandparents to obtain support while updating their child rearing knowledge.

Linking respite services with support groups is an important way to reach and assist grandparents on an ongoing basis. Because respite can provide continuous caregiving breaks, this partnership is especially crucial for grandparents who are raising grandchildren with special needs. A large number of children being raised by grandparents may fall into this category, because children whose parents are absent are likely to have been affected by substance abuse, neglect or other traumas.

Although many grandparent caregivers will say they need respite, some may not be immediately receptive to the idea of respite services. They may worry that accepting respite reflects poorly on their abilities to care for their grandchildren. In order to allay any fears about using respite services, it is important during outreach to discuss respite as a normal but significant component of caregiving. A grandparent who uses respite is an effective and responsible caregiver. Local grandparent support groups can be an important way to share this message.


As the number of grandparent caregivers continues to increase, the need and demand for respite services for this unique population grows. Access to respite services may be limited by grandparents’ lack of knowledge and understanding about such services. Outreach efforts designed according to the unique situations of grandparent caregivers is crucial. Sustained support through respite services can provide grandparent caregivers the break they need. Grandparents who have access to and use respite are able to be more effective and resilient caregivers.


Saluter, A. (1995). Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1993. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Washington, DC.

Saluter, A. (1996). Marital Status and Living Arrangements:

March 1994. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Washington, DC.

Generations United Spring Symposium (1998) Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children: An Intergenerational Action Agenda

About the Authors

Original authors were Renee S. Woodworth, MSW, the Acting Director of the AARP Grandparent Information Center in Washington, DC.; and Holly Dabelko, a graduate student intern for the AARP Grandparent Information Center, completing her MSW at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Social Work. Assistance with this 1998 revision was provided by Margaret Hollidge, Coordinator, AARP Grandparent

Information Center.
This fact sheet was produced by the ARCH National Resource Center for Respite and Crisis Care Services funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau—Cooperative Agreement No. 90- CN-0178 under contract with the North Carolina Department of Human Resources, Division of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities/Substance Abuse Services, Child and Family Services Branch, Raleigh, North Carolina. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the funders, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.