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Grandfamilies: The Health Challenges of Raising Grandchildren


With an opioid abuse epidemic raging, many children of parents addicted to prescription painkillers or heroin, or whose parents have died from overdosing on the powerful drugs, are now being cared for by their grandparents. That’s contributed significantly to a rise in so-called grandfamilies: As of last year, 2.9 million children in the U.S. were living with grandparents who were responsible for their care, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ news service Stateline. That’s up from 2.5 million in 2005.

There are many other reasons a grandparent may end up needing to be a full-time caretaker for a grandchild, too. They include parental death from any cause, incarceration, mental illness, physical illness, divorce, homelessness, military deployment or having teenage parents, says Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director at District of Columbia-based Generations United, a national nonprofit that seeks to improve the lives of children and older people, with an emphasis on connecting the generations. “There are also cases where parents need to move elsewhere for employment but do not have resources to bring the children with them,” she says.

[See: 14 Ways Caregivers Can Care for Themselves.]

Be open in discussing challenges. Some grandparents may be embarrassed to acknowledge that they’re taking care of their children’s children, says Carolyn Graff, chief of nursing at the Boling Center for Developmental Disabilities at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis — such as in circumstances where a grown child is incarcerated or facing other potentially sensitive issues. But by acknowledging it, she says, grandparents can more clearly communicate their needs.

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