Posted by Kathy Burnes

When we talk about caregivers, how often are we thinking about and including grandparents or other kin caregivers who are raising children? This is an overlooked population because people see family members as just naturally helping out in times of need. And we have a stereotypic image of grandparents. They've already done the parent thing. As grandparents, they are there to fill in and provide unconditional love for their grandchildren.

But the phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren is not new and it's growing. The issues involved are varied and complex, as I learned at a recent meeting of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. The commission was established as part of the 2009 Child Advocate bill and is charged with actively working to better understand and address the needs of grandparents in this situation. At this meeting the commission shared its findings from a "listening tour" it did this past year in cities and towns around the state.

Imagine being an older adult living on a fixed income with one or more chronic conditions and becoming the primary caregiver for your grandchild. Your son or daughter may be unable to care for their child because of drug and alcohol problems, mental or physical illness, incarceration, teen pregnancy, death or abandonment, or military service. The circumstances under which grandparents become primary caregivers are extremely varied.

And as I learned there are myriad needs of grandparents and the children they are raising. Grandparents often must deal with a maze of challenges ranging from education to health care and insurance; legal, housing, and financial issues; mental health; and the list goes on. It is difficult to know where to turn for help for the grandchild you are raising let alone address your own needs and feelings. The various systems that offer assistance are hard to identify, understand, and navigate. And the rules and regulations surrounding foster care, adoption, and guardianship often work against getting the real financial and/or legal help needed.

I came away from the meeting with an invaluable tool—A Resource Guide for Massachusetts Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren—that assists grandparents and other kinship caregivers to locate and obtain needed resources. It identifies educational, financial, social, health, and legal resources, as well as provides lists of support groups and tips for grandparents by grandparents. Pass along the information.

Kathy Burnes is project manager of the JF&CS Geriatric Institute, which focuses on developing and implementing projects that translate research into community-based services. Prior to coming to JF&CS in 2007, she worked as a senior research associate at Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship, and at the National Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University. Kathy also worked for AARP and Operation ABLE of Greater Boston. She has a BA from the University of Michigan and a MEd from Northeastern University.