Skip to main content

Grandparents struggle with new roles resulting from opioid crisis

December 12, 2018

As she researched the issue of grandparents forced back into parenting roles because of the opioid crisis and other societal problems, Christine Stanik, PhD, was struck by how much these grandparents wanted their voices heard.

“People were really, really desperate to talk to me,” Stanik, a researcher at the nonprofit health solutions company Altarum, tells Addiction Professional. “They were willing to share intimate details of their life, in the hope that they could elevate the information to people in positions of authority.”

Altarum this morning released the research brief Collateral Damage of the Opioid Crisis, a document that paints a stark picture of the many challenges facing grandparents who are being thrust into primary parental roles in unprecedented numbers. This phenomenon is occurring in part because their adult children's substance use issues are rendering them incapable of parenting.

Stanik says that while some of the 20 Michigan grandmothers who were interviewed for the research expressed a need for help with day-to-day issues involved with raising a grandchild, such as understanding today's social media, these were not the primary concerns. “They've already raised children,” she explains.

“What they really wanted to impart was they are caught between their adult child who is suffering and the grandchildren they're trying to protect,” Stanik says. The emotional burdens they are carrying in dealing with these warring priorities came up over and over again in the conversations.

And because many of these grandparents are still relatively young, it is not unusual for them also to be caring for their own elderly parents at the same time, making for a four-generation scenario in many cases. “They're trying to hold it all together,” Stanik says.

Data collection

A social and developmental psychologist, Stanik focuses a great deal on family dynamics. She often initiates research with qualitative work that will then inform a broader survey. For this report, she interviewed the 20 grandmothers who are now parenting their grandchildren, then used the themes arising from those discussions to design a nationwide online survey that was answered by 1,015 grandparents.

Here are some of the survey's key findings:

  • 20% of the grandparents cited parental drug abuse as the reason they were now parenting their grandchildren. Other reasons cited for having to step into this role included parental incarceration, death, homelessness and mental health problems.

  • 34% of the survey respondents said they have either delayed retirement or have been forced out of retirement because of their new parenting responsibilities.

  • 11% said they often or always have had trouble paying for food in the past three months. While use of government benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is common in these cases, Stanik writes in the report that “many others fall into a gap of not qualifying for government subsidies, but also not being able to make ends meet.”

  • Around one-quarter of grandparents reported that their grandchildren had experienced some form of abuse or neglect while in the care of their parents.

  • Many grandparents expressed frustration, or downright fear, over actions of the child protective services system. While around one-quarter of the surveyed grandparents reported having custody of their grandchildren through the foster care system, others harbored a deep fear that working with child services systems would trigger an investigation that coud lead to the children being taken away.

Stanik says these kinds of fears often lead grandparents to make decisions that are not necessarily in their best financial interest, such as giving up benefits in order to avoid the hassle of dealing with bureaucracy.

Policy recommendations

The Altarum report offers several recommendations for helping families affected by a parental substance use disorder. Stanik says that much could be done to better coordinate services and supports that already exist in many communities. The report's recommendations are:

  • Sort out the provision of subsidies. With service availability varying widely by location, the establishment of resource clearinghouses could offer grandparents reliable information about the supports available to them.

  • Enhance the foster care system. Policymakers should re-examine the foster care system to determine how its services can be adapted to fit the growing number of grandparents now involved in kinship care.

  • Develop and implement continuing education and mental health interventions. Grandparents generally have great trust in pediatricians, who they relied on when they raised their own children, but these doctors often know little about what resources are available in the community. “They don't know how to recommend them to get Head Start services for the kids, or [Women, Infants and Children] services,” Stanik says.

  • Clarify legal rights. Legal rights of grandparents differ widely across states, with some states not recognizing parenting rights outside of the biological parents even if a grandparent has raised the child from day one. The report states that “the creation of court navigators may be necessary to prepare and guide grandfamilies for dealing with the family court system in their state.”

  • Develop and implement peer support trainings and peer-led programs. The report suggests that behavioral health programs establish peer support organizations and trainings. Stanik cites peers as one of three main trusted information sources reported by grandparents, along with pediatricians and schools.

Back to Top