Many Senior Citizens Finding Themselves in “Surrogate” Roles

by Bonnie Roberts Erickson


The average age of today’s first-time grandparent is 48, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons. Many of these grandparents, and those older, are making significant contributions to their grandchildren’s lives and their quality of life. It is becoming more common for senior adults to take on the role of primary caregiver for grandchildren and many are also experiencing another new role as caregiver - having their grown children return to the nest.

The incidence of grandparents becoming surrogate caregivers is rising, according to the AARP, as seniors struggle with premature death or long-term illnesses of their adult children, economic hardships created by layoffs, overwhelming debt issues involving their grown children, emotional crisis due to separation or divorce and any number of other socio-economic factors.

Radford University psychology professor Tom Pierce says grandparents who find themselves as caregivers in their golden years may have to deal with some feelings of anger. “The anger comes from having a very demanding situation forced on them,” Pierce says. “The grandparents may also have to deal with feelings of guilt over whether there was anything that they did to make their own children unable to serve as effective parents.”

One major issue that must be dealt with from the onset is the increased financial burden that will fall on the shoulders of the senior citizen. The average grandparent reported spends as much as $500 a year on grandchildren with a majority of the money going to basic needs in the child’s life. More than 52 percent of the grandparents surveyed provide some form of financial help with educational needs and approximately 45 percent report helping their grown children with living expenses.

The new financial burdens for seniors are expenses they no doubt were not anticipating in their later years, says Pierce. Additionally, there is the ongoing stress that comes from everyday parenting issues. Pierce adds another factor: “There are increased demands on them physically.” Many may not be able to find a network of support from their friends during the transition time because they are spending most of their time parenting - adding more pressure to an already stress-filled situation.

Pierce offers advice for seniors who find themselves in the caregiving role.

The demands of parenting are immense even in the best of situations. Seniors will need some degree of relief from the demands of parenting and caregiving. Personal time is very important.

Grandparents who’ve been thrust into the role of caregiver will also need to be responsible for leisure activities in the younger child’s life. This can be a mutually beneficial experience. Pierce suggests trips to the park, reading and attending community events together. ‘Play dates’ could be arranged with other families that have children. Grandparents are encouraged to get down on the child’s level and show interest in the same toys the child is interested in. Pierce adds, “It’s a lot more fun to share a child’s world than to watch it from a park bench 30 feet away.”

Thought should be given to the future of the grandchildren if something happens to the senior caregiver. Pierce suggests that grandparents consider changing their will so their estate goes into a trust for their grandchildren rather than going to adult children.

Research has shown that some of the other key elements that grandparents will be faced with include understanding their legal rights as a caregiver, meeting the social, emotional and health needs of the child and also staying up-to-date on the resources available to them within their communities. Many of the grandparents surveyed by the AARP said they felt an obligation to contribute to their grandchildren’s spirituality and believed they had made a significant impact in that aspect of the younger child’s life.

Pierce says adult children who have returned home also have issues they must confront as they adjust to a new living arrangement.

“Adult children living with their parents should be able to expect that their parents will treat them like adults and recognize that they can and should make their own decisions as adults,” Pierce says. However, he reminds, “The adult children should also recognize that their parents are under no obligation to approve of their adult choices.”

Pierce says adult children “will have to adjust to a loss of freedom and flexibility that comes with living with people who have a potentially different lifestyle.” Adult children will need to understand the needs and feelings of their parents when they make decisions about their own behavior, Pierce says.

Negotiating will be important to all of the family. Pierce recommends that the senior host family and the adult children come to terms on a specific set of conditions about how they are going to handle things. “Both parties have to be happy with the contract before the adult children move in. It’s much easier to resolve a difference of opinion when you already have something in writing that specifies how the family is going to handle certain types of issues.”

Pierce believes people who share the same benefits of living in a home should also share in the responsibilities that come with that benefit, including household chores and financial support, to the extent that they are able.