More Grandparents Find Themselves Raising Their Grandchildren

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Gloria Castillo had plenty of time with her grandchildren Sunday for National Grandparents Day — all she had to do was take a few steps down the hall.

Castillo is one of the growing number of grandparents in Arizona, and across the country, who are struggling to raise their grandchildren in what should be their retirement years.

The Census Bureau estimated that there were 67,117 Arizona grandparents responsible for their minor grandchildren in 2010, up from 52,205 in 2000. Nationally, the number rose from 2.4 to 2.7 million in the period.

Such caregiving arrangements can stretch the already tight finances of grandparents, who may be living on a fixed income or may be living below the poverty level themselves. They say they get little support, but many, like Castillo, can’t see doing anything else.

“You take them, you raise them, and make sure they’re not statistics,” the Phoenix resident said of the three teenage grandchildren she has raised for the last 13 years. “There’s no way I can retire.”

Before she gave up her retirement, Castillo, 65, gave up her career as a criminal investigator to take a job as a receptionist, because she needed the more-regular hours to care for her grandkids. Besides the financial cost, she lost most of her friends. “I lost everything that I owned,” Castillo said. “But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Castillo said the government has no idea what grandparents like her have to go through — emotionally and financially.

“Many grandparents that have children placed in their homes are taken to the brink of bankruptcy,” said Castillo.

Of the 2.7 million grandparents caring for grandchildren nationally in 2010, about 580,000 were below the poverty level, according to the census. In Arizona, 14,651 caregiving grandparents of the total 67,117 were living below the poverty level.

Patty Merk, director of the Arizona Cooperative Extension’s Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, said such grandparents face too many “bureaucratic hoops” to get support and health care. “(Grandparents) are not usually connected with social services,” Merk said.

Elaine Williams, a consultant who speaks at events for kinship caregivers, says grandparents sacrifice enormously to take on the role of full-time parent. “Grandparents are not in a natural phase in life where raising kids is what they do,” Williams said.

Castillo took on the job of mother to her then-young grandchildren one December night 13 years ago, when police called to say her youngest daughter and son-in-law were part of a drug bust. “Then I woke up days before Christmas with three babies and I said, ‘Oh my God, what do I do next?’”

What she did next was try to provide for her grandchildren as if they came from a two-parent family, with sports, music lessons, plays and everything else that comes with kids. “They all call me ‘Mama,’” Castillo said of her grandchildren, Hauss, now 18, Joshua, 17, and Maiya, 14.

Castillo, now a vocational rehabilitation counselor, wishes there was more emotional relief in the form of support groups for grandparents like her, people who have to change their entire lives.

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