The days of grandparents retiring at 65 and strolling off into the sunset in matching tracksuits are long gone. Grandma and Grandpa are now working longer and a new story from PBS suggests—thanks to drug addiction—they’re staying in their parenting roles longer, too. The minute I read this, I thought about women’s gymnastics. (Admittedly, my mind usually goes to a place of sparkly makeup and spandex, but stay with me.)
Over the summer, I (and the rest of the planet) spent my days watching American gymnast Simone Biles take home a record number of gold medals. The Olympics wouldn’t be the emotional powder keg that it is without touching backstories, and Biles certainly has one. The gymnast has been raised by her grandparents since the age of two after drug addiction rendered her biological mother incapable of caring for her and her younger sister. As an addict myself, a child of an alcoholic and a lover of all things gymnastics, the Biles family story tugged at my heart. When her parents (whom doofus sportscasters ignorantly called her “grandparents”) cheered from the sidelines, I couldn’t help but cheer along with this family with the tear-jerking, inspiring story. Yet per the numbers, it’s a scenario happening more and more all over the country.
The Next Best Thing?
Consider this: back in 2005, 2.5 million children were living with grandparents as their primary caregivers. By 2015, that number jumped to 2.9 million. These staggering numbers beg the question: why are grandma are grandpa the first choice? “Obviously, the numbers have grown because of the current national opioid epidemic,” Maria Moissades, who heads Massachusetts’ Office of the Child Advocate, told PBS. “You’ve got grandparents who thought they were going to spend their retirement fishing and traveling. Now they’re raising [as many as]five grand kids.” Due to the enormous overflow of children in need, states are looking to get kids placed quickly, and if they can do that by using a relative, then all the better. Also, federal law requires that states do all they can to place children with blood relatives, allowing them to receive foster and adoption financial assistance. Therefore, grandparents are usually prime candidates to take over for parents who could be jailed or sent to required rehab due to addiction.
Not Every Kid Has a Gold Medal Story
But it’s not all Werther’s Originals and Murder She Wrote marathons on Netflix for these new makeshift families. First off, addiction is a family disease. Like I say about my own clan, shake my family tree and you’ll get hit by bottles—meaning many grandparents are also struggling with addiction. State representatives do look closely into these factors, and they are incredibly cautious about placing kids back into another nightmarish situation like the one they just came from. In states like Ohio, the opioid epidemic has ballooned to the point that caseworkers have an impossible time finding any family member who isn’t struggling with addiction.
Even if the grandparents are a solid, stable match, most struggle financially. According to Generations United, 21% of grandparents caring for grandchildren live below the poverty line. Couples on tight budgets built for two are now forced to make their dollars stretch even further to support their new family. “Most of us are on Social Security,” Dot Thibodeaux, president and founder of the grassroots support group Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana told PBS. “When the family grows, the Social Security does not. You have to make do with whatever you were getting, and that’s kind of hard.”
While there are programs available to financially help grandparents raising kids, many are riddled with issues. Like in Atlanta, where some families claim they haven’t received their monthly caregiver payments from Division of Family and Children Services for months. Other measures—like a bill from Illinois senator Danny Davis that would make it easier for grandparents caring for children to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—is currently trapped in committee limbo. Meanwhile, another bill specifically targeted to help families of addicts was killed back in September.
Making it Work
Nevertheless, love triumphs in many of these families, as grandparents find a way to open their homes to their children’s children. This phenomenon has exploded at such a rate that sources like the AARP have chimed in with tips and profiles of grandparents raising children of addicts have spread like wildfire. I know in my own childhood growing up in an alcoholic home, adults like my grandparents were an absolute godsend. These sane, normal people who didn’t live in the same war zone that I did were a safe haven—even if it was just for a few hours. I learned later in my adulthood that my grandparents did things like letting us spend the night or taking us to the mountains as a small way to help in a seemingly helpless situation.
A must-read piece from the The New York Times last spring perfectly nails the challenges and benefits of raising grandchildren left behind by addiction. Ms. Martin, a grandmother raising her grandson, told The Times, “I feel blessed to have this boy in my life. He is a treasure, and most likely, I would not be here without him. He gave me something positive to focus on, rather than the heartaches and sadness and grief. I have a renewed sense of hope, that I’m doing something worthwhile.”