Keith and Edie Lowhorne had planned well for their retirement. The Alabama couple were preparing for an extended trip to Europe. They had bought a vacation cabin in Tennessee. “I had worked 43 years in broadcast journalism,” Keith Lowhorne says. “We had saved.” Then, everything changed with a phone call. Today the Lowhornes are raising two grandchildren, ages 9 and 6. That trip to Europe? Never happened.
Eugene Vickerson had worked two jobs for years in Atlanta — at a water treatment plant and as a real estate investor. All so he could retire at 50. Then one day, when he was 62, he was sitting outside his home when a woman drove up with one of his granddaughters. The woman said, “If you don’t take this child, we are going to put her in protective services.” Forget retiring.
Mercedes Bristol was living in San Antonio, working for the state of Texas and a few years away from retirement, when circumstances forced her to take in five grandchildren. The oldest was 9. “I didn’t have five beds for kids,” she says. “I remember crying at Walmart because I was so overwhelmed with the amount of supplies that the kids needed.” More than a decade later, three of her grandchildren still live with her.
These grandparents share something: the unexpected role of becoming a child caregiver long after they thought those years were behind them. They illuminate a social trend in America: the high number of “grandfamilies” — grandparents raising grandchildren.
U.S. census data shows that 7.1 million American grandparents are living with their grandchildren under 18. Some 2.3 million of those grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren. About a third of grandchildren living with grandparents who are responsible for them are younger than 6.
About half of the grandparents who are responsible for their grandchildren are 60 and over, according to census data.
Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that was launched more than 35 years ago in partnership with AARP, advocates for grandfamilies. “Grandparents have been stepping in to raise grandchildren since the beginning of our country,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “But it has increased in recent years. We see spikes whenever there is a crisis.”