Parents again: More grandparents are helping to raise grandchildren, census shows
SALT LAKE CITY — When Bill and Carol Pendleton walk into parent/teacher conferences, they notice they are old enough to be the parents of the other parents in the room.
“We're the only 'blue hairs' there,” Carol Pendleton notes with a smile.
For 10 years, the Draper couple, now in their 70s, have been parenting their two granddaughters, 17-year-old Gabrielle and 15-year-old Audrey. They became the girls' legal guardians when their mother, the Pendletons' youngest daughter, died unexpectedly. Her husband died not long after.
“We talked about, as a family, who should raise the girls,” Bill Pendleton said. “I had a very strong feeling, a premonition, that our daughter wanted us to do that.”
The Pendletons are among a growing number of families across the country that find grandparents raising their grandchildren, with varying or no participation from the children's parents.
Through the years, the Pendleton's have heard stories of other grandparents who have done the same, often when the children's parents have been caught up in crime or drugs, or were otherwise unable to care for them.
As many as 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. were raising their grandchildren in 2012 — a 3 percent increase in 10 years, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.
Utah's portion was similar to the national average, with 57,807 grandparents in the state living with a grandchild. About 1 in 3 of those grandparents were primarily responsible for childcare, and more than 40 percent of them, like the Pendletons, were 60 or older.
“We won't be here forever, that's for sure,” Bill Pendleton said.
The Census Bureau found that in 4.2 million households across the country, or 3 percent, grandparents are living with grandchildren under the age of 18 and are responsible for maintaining the household 60 percent of the time.
The children's parents were not present in about 1 in 3 of those households, according to the report.
Renee Ellis, a demographer in the Census Bureau's Fertility and Family Statistics Branch, said Wednesday grandparent roles have changed for a number of reasons.
“Recent trends in increased life expectancy, single-parent families and female employment increase the potential for grandparents to play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren,” Ellis said.
The report also found that grandparents who lived with a grandchild in 2012 were younger, had less education and were more likely to be in poverty than those who did not live with a grandchild.
Nationally, more than 20 percent of grandparents residing with grandchildren were below the poverty line. In Utah, however, that portion represented a little more than 11 percent.
Pamela Perlich, senior economist at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, says multi-generational habitation is mutually beneficial for many families who struggle financially.
“It's not the older folks who are just supporting the younger folks. It's both directions,” Perlich said. “It's really just the mirror image of outsourcing childcare.”
Perlich added that as the costs of child care and health care have risen, more families have withdrawn from the “shared social safety net” of outside help and now rely more on the stability of multi-generational households.
Bill and Carol Pendleton's oldest daughter also lives in the Draper home for medical reasons. For a time, her daughter lived with them as well.
The report states that grandparents residing with grandchildren are most often black or Hispanic, but Perlich says the effects of uneven economic growth are “blind to race and ethnicity,” especially impacting the young and the elderly.
The rising cost of education is an example of why more young people are chosing to stay at home or move in with grandma and grandpa, Perlich said.
“We know that the price of college has gone up faster than people have had the capacity to absorb it,” she said. “So one way to control this cost and still have access to education would be to continue to live at home rather than go out of state (and) have those increased housing costs, in addition to the education costs.”
Perlich says the report demonstrates the increasing complexity of Utah's households, and that it emphasizes the need for policy that facilitates the growth and health of family relationships.
“It's an indication that the new Utah that is emerging and has emerged is quite different than the stereotype that people maybe have in their minds,” Perlich said. “As the times change and there's more need, then I think it's incumbent upon our institutions to evolve in ways that help support families, which are the bedrock of society.”
Audrey recalls going to live with her grandparents when she was 5, prompting a variety of reactions from her friends and classmates through the years. Many, she said, initially treated her with concern or pity. Some were unkind, bullying her.
“Over the years, I've felt a little bit outcast, like I'm the only one without parents, though that's not the case,” Audrey said. “But I would ignore it. I would feel happy with what I have and the great household I live in, with great-grandparents who look out for me.”
Now, Audrey hears of more classmates who are being raised by their grandparents.
When Bill and Carol Pendleton raised their three children, there was no Internet. Some things about parenting never change, like sibling rivalry or the need to balance discipline and affection. Raising children in a digital age, however, is dramatically different.
“I've had to develop some skills with phones and computers, but my two IT people are my granddaughters,” Bill Pendleton says. “It's not normal to me. It's a whole new world.”
“We used to be able to do math with our kids. Now we don't,” Carol Pendleton adds.
Taking on parenting a second time is an experience the Pendletons say they could never regret.
“People say to us that the girls are lucky to have us, but we say that it's the other way around. We're the lucky ones,” Bill Pendleton said.