Retiring to raise grandchildren is a growing phenomenon


By David Wilkening, Contributing Writer

A conservatively estimated 68,000 children are now being raised by their grandparents throughout Massachusetts.
A conservatively estimated 68,000 children are now being raised by their grandparents throughout Massachusetts.

REGION – Former Massachusetts state legislator John B. Lepper’s youngest daughter had addiction problems: Both drugs and alcohol. Not a good background for someone raising two small children.

When Lepper and his wife, Arlette, took over legal guardianship of the children―aged eight months and two years old―they took on a whole new world of problems. Fortunately, Lepper and his wife had the financial and emotional wherewithal to deal with the new realities of being parents again. Lepper became a leader in legislation to help grandparents facing similar problems and to assume their new and rapidly growing roles. When he decided in 2008 not to seek re-election, his stated reason was no surprise: Devote more time to his family.


A growing trend

He was a well-publicized example of a grandparent trend: A conservatively estimated 68,000 children are now being raised by their grandparents throughout the state. Nearly 12,000 of those are in Boston.
And the problem is not only in Massachusetts―grandparents are raising an estimated six million children across the country.

It’s even acquired a new name: “Grand Families” or “Kinship Care.” So it’s no wonder a new study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College had this headline: “Retiring to Care for Grandchildren isn’t Unusual.” The study was done by Somalis Chy and Megan Doherty Bea at the University of Wisconsin.

In the study, the researchers found that one in 10 grandparents who, prior to retiring, already considered themselves caregivers for at least one child, move closer to the child’s parents. That doubles to two in 10 after they retire. They tracked some 3,000 older workers’ answers to a regular survey during a 12-year period around retirement. The survey collected a range of personal data, including information about their finances, where they live, and whether they spend at least 100 hours a year taking care of grandchildren. 

“A lot of people were blaming the pandemic last year, but this was a trend starting before that. Our study started years before that. We don’t know exactly when it (grandparents retiring to care for grandkids) started or any exact date when it began, but a lot of families coping with the high cost of limited child care have been struggling with it,” said Doherty Bea, an Assistant Professor of Consumer Science.

The Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey counted 2.4 million grandparents nationwide living with grandchildren for whom they were responsible. By 2014, that number had risen to 2.7 million. Meanwhile, the number of grandparents living in the same households as their grandchildren jumped from 5.7 million in 2005 to 7.1 million in 2014.


Main reason is drug addiction

Various surveys have found that the number one reason for grandparents taking over grandchild care was the same as the Lepper’s case: parents with drug addictions. But other motivations include mental illness, incarceration, deaths, and even the overwhelming nature of being a single parent.

Most observers view grandparent oversight as difficult for a variety of reasons that include financial issues near the top of the list. And while some grandparents say the list of benefits to them include closer relationships with family members, grandparents still face a host of problems.

Having to raise a child or children a second time around can be a very stressful situation. It can result in financial burden as well as disrupt a senior’s retirement plans. However, there are resources and support groups for grandparents raising their grandchild or grandchildren. These resources can be found in Massachusetts at the local, state and national level.

Do these resources help, particularly at the local level? Some participants report positive results.

The grandfamily support groups are “critical,” reported grandfather Eddie O’Brien of Whitman, who became legal guardian to his granddaughter while his daughter battled addiction. “That saved us,” he told NBC Boston. “Talking to somebody that has experienced it … it just made it a lot easier, more comfortable, easier to open up, easier to cry. And that really helped.”


Choices can be painful

One such local program active for almost ten years is “From Roots to Wings” in Dorchester. One local businesswoman testified at one meeting to her similarity to the Lepper situation with a drug-addicted daughter. She very reluctantly took over care of a small grandchild. “My friends tell me that I was cold but I had to kill off my own daughter,’ she said. “I just couldn’t have her continuing to be a disruptive force. In order to go forward I had to have her out of the way. It was painful because a lot of us like to keep our business within the family.”

Statewide, the Massachusetts Commission for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren was established in 2008. It has 15 members who “have demonstrated a commitment to grandchildren.” They meet monthly and offer a variety of services as a “resource to the Commonwealth on issues affecting grandparents raising grandchildren, and relatives, other than parents, raising kin.”


Help at federal level

On the federal level, grandparents who receive Social Security benefits were due for extra financial support starting in 2023. Children whose parents have died or are unable to work may also be eligible for Social Security benefits. Depending on their incomes, families may also be eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and other forms of government support.

One of President Biden’s budget proposals included adding $20 billion over a decade to encourage “kinship care” over foster care arrangements with strangers, and to support those grandfamilies and kinship care families with social programs and tax credits. Congress has yet to finalize those budget plans.



Grandparents who are caregivers of their grandchildren also benefit (