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When Grandparents Are Called to Parent — Again

Millions of older Americans are being forced by circumstances to raise their grandchildren

spinner image Keith and Edie Lowhorne with their two grandchildren, in Sharon Johnston Park, New Market, Alabama
Keith and Edie Lowhorne with their two grandchildren, in Sharon Johnston Park, New Market, Alabama.
Emily Anderson

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.

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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.

spinner image Mercedes Bristol with two of her grandchildren at their home in San Antonio
Mercedes Bristol with two of her grandchildren at their home in San Antonio.

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.

Grandfamily Resources

The website ​(of which Generations United is a partner) is a clearinghouse for information about adoption, foster care and financial help.

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.”

Twin crises

Parental substance abuse, incarceration and death of a parent are among the many reasons grandparents take in their grandkids. But two crises in particular have forced a spike in recent years. COVID is one. “Tragically, at least 140,000 children — 140,000 children — were orphaned by the pandemic and are now living with grandparents or next of kin,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in a statement before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which he chairs.

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The other crisis is the opioid epidemic. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told AARP that America’s opioid problem greatly increased the pressure on grandparents to take over responsibility for children. “I first got interested in this issue when I started seeing so many grandparents in Maine who were raising very young children. In almost every case, the parent of the child had a crisis with drug addiction or had been incarcerated.”

The Lowhornes can relate. Now ages 66 and 59, the couple had already raised seven kids in their mixed family, all now adults. But one day they learned that a newborn grandchild was in a neonatal unit. “He was withdrawing from having drugs in his system when he was born,” Keith Lowhorne recalls. “It came as a shock to us.”

They ended up with two children in their home, one of whom needed extraordinary care. “He was diagnosed with several things,” Lowhorne says. “He’s on medication. It’s a struggle for him and for us, but it’s one of those things that we’ve learned to cope with.”

Not only did the Lowhornes have to find doctors and therapists, but they had to figure out how to homeschool their older grandchild so he could attend his therapies. Even their social network changed, because they could no longer do the things their friends were doing.

Eugene Vickerson, now 76, has a similar story. Years after his own kids had left home, his granddaughter was brought to his home with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, half a bottle of soda and half a bag of chips. The reason? The mother had “mental issues,” Vickerson says, and was doing drugs. By that time, he already had a grandson living with him.

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Vickerson did not want his grandkids to just survive; he wanted them to thrive, which meant he had to figure out how to create a stable environment. “My goal was to raise productive children. I wanted to do all I had done with my biological children.”

Strains and supports

Vickerson describes difficulties he encountered while applying for financial aid. “So I used my savings,” he says, “and just hustled to get things for the kids that they needed ... child care, beds, Pampers. All the stuff that parents need for a baby, I had to figure out how to get.”

Since most grandparents do not plan for child caregiving, financial stress often arises. According to Generations United, about 18 percent of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren live in poverty. A quarter of those grandparents have disabilities.

But there are positive stories as well. San Antonio’s Mercedes Bristol — whose grandkids came to live with her due to drug issues and negligence — started Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a nonprofit that has raised thousands in donations for grandfamilies. “We have about 20 support groups throughout the state now,” says Bristol, now 68.

The Lowhornes started a group called Grandparents as Parents, which has spread across Alabama. This past holiday season, the group collected sufficient donations to buy Christmas presents for 130 grandchildren and helped to donate food to families in need. The Lowhornes say they feel “blessed” that they are able to help.

Collins approves of the grandparents’ efforts. “I admire these grandparents who have stepped up to an enormous challenge,” the senator says. “We have an obligation to help them as much as we can.”

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