More grandparents than ever are being put in a position like Barb and Fran—becoming full-time parents again, often with fewer resources and more health problems than they had the first time around. The arrangement is not new, of course—people raised by grandparents for at least part of their childhood include Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, and two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—but it’s more common than ever these days. (The Greek god Zeus was raised by his grandmother, too, though that was really the least she could do: Her son, Cronus, threatened to swallow the child whole.) The proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since 1970, and has gone up 7 percent in the past five years alone—an increase many attribute to the opioid epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3 percent of children nationwide live apart from their parents, and of those, nearly two-thirds are being raised by grandparents. Some 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, either because of a temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness, divorce, incarceration, death, or, as in Barb and Fran’s case, substance abuse.
Raising grandchildren can take a toll on grandparents: higher-than-normal rates of depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health problems like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion, loneliness, and isolation; a sense of having too little privacy, and too little time to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members.