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In “Grandfamilies,” Seniors Experience a Different Set of COVID-19 Challenges

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COVID-19 blog series

Nationally, an estimated 85 million people (17 percent of all U.S. households) are living as extended families, up from 58 million in 2001. About 2.7 million children live in extended family households, a significant amount of whom are being raised by grandparents, commonly referred to as “grandfamilies.” Heads of grandfamily households are more likely to be older than parent-led households (about half are age 60 or older), which carries increased risk of significant negative impacts from the coronavirus; additionally, they are also more likely to be Black or Native American, two groups which themselves have been disproportionately impacted by virus cases and deaths due to a range of social and economic factors. Soberingly, a Generations United (GU) report notes that, “COVID-19 is both heightening the challenges of existing grandfamilies and creating new grandfamilies” due to fatalities among parents. While many of these families exist within the foster care system, it is estimated that for every one child in the foster care system, there are 20 children living in kinship care outside of the system—a dynamic which can dramatically change the resources and supports available for families.  

Grandfamilies faced a number of challenges common to other families during this crisis, but often with fewer resources. For example, 38 percent report in a GU survey that they are unable or concerned about paying mortgage or rent (housing insecurity has been a major issue throughout the pandemic, as the Institute for Child Success has written). Food insecurity is also a widespread issue, but affects grandparents in a unique way due to concerns over exposure: 43 percent reported they were afraid to leave their homes to get food. (This national survey was conducted May-June of 2020.)  

Grandparents in households with children—whether themselves head of households or living in multi-generational settings—report facing a number of stressors throughout this crisis, including fear of public exposure to the virus; trouble accessing services they have used previously (for example, a family with WIC benefits, a special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children, who cannot use them to get groceries delivered); losing access to friends and in-person supports for their own well-being; mental health concerns for their children and grandchildren, particularly with the shift to virtual schooling; and struggling with technology access as more of life has shifted online.  

As communities emerge from COVID, how can systems shift to support the unique needs of grandfamilies as we begin adapting to the “new normal,” most likely some hybrid form of in person and virtual interaction for the foreseeable future? GU provides a detailed list of both policy and practice recommendations within their report including:  

  • Expansion of kinship navigator programsand support programs that “bridge the many systems to link caregivers and children to services and supports.” These groups are beneficial for both formal (foster-care system) and informal grandfamilies. Despite the technology challenges that many grandparents reported, online support groups and connecting via digital platforms were one of the few bright spots reported by GU survey respondents in the 2020 survey. While these technologies may come with a steep learning curve, they also allowed for immediate connection in a way that families had lost from in-person engagements.  
  • Continued flexibility in government programs. GU highlights several changes made during the pandemic to ease barriers to access which may be beneficial from families if continued. For example, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued guidance to allow for additional flexibility in the use of federal child welfare funds to cover supports like legal services for families, transportation vouchers, additional food support, and technology for caregivers.  
  • Inclusive language in outreach materials, focusing not only on “parents” but more broadly on “caregivers” or “family members.” This is an important change on the whole for inclusivity for all families, and given the particular juggling acts of families facing child care challenges during the pandemic, it even behooves those families who do not identify as “grandfamilies” (for example, families where grandparents are assisting with virtual schooling while parents work).  
  • Connecting across systems, including schools, social service agencies, health care (for both children and seniors), community- and faith-based organizations, and more. Families have never existed in a bubble, and what happens in one sector of their life impacts others as well—and sometimes, in new and challenging ways. GU highlights the benefit of allowing grandfamilies to access food and other supplies and services meant for both seniors and children at one location, rather than multiple outlets, to reduce transportation challenges and exposure risks. As the world shifted rapidly online since last spring, grandfamilies have had to rapidly expand their technology resources and knowledge; programs to build capacity in these areas can help in many parts of life, from education to health care. Free legal services are also an area of great value; many grandparent-headed families do not have full legal documentation of their arrangement, which can create challenges in accessing care for children as well as in case of an emergency where a grandparent is incapacitated.  

As we enter a new phase of this health crisis, with widespread vaccination creating safe opportunities for reopening and reengagement, families will need to again navigate the complex needs of seniors and young children, especially those who live together. As of mid-March 2021, seniors lead the way in the terms of Americans who have received at least one vaccine dose (about 49 percent of recipients were 65+, as of March 17).  Young children may not be eligible to receive the vaccine for quite some time, though school districts in most states have an intention to return to full in-classroom schooling for the 2021-2022 school year. Even once the acute crisis has passed, we must hold on to lessons from this time in how to support intergenerational families, and the value they can bring to adults and children alike. In an opinion piece in The Globe & Mail, one mother explores the impact of living with her own family as she welcomed a child: “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine family…COVID-19 has taken so much from us, but it’s also given us an opportunity to reshape how we live and how we care for each other.”  

Megan Carolan

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