Grandparents play a bigger role in child-rearing

WASHINGTON—America is swiftly becoming a granny state.

Less frail and more involved, today’s grandparents are shunning retirement homes and stepping in more than ever to raise grandchildren while young adults struggle in the poor economy.

The newer grandparents are mainly baby boomers who are still working, with greater disposable income. Now making up 1 in 4 adults, grandparents are growing at twice the rate of the overall population and sticking close to family—if their grandkids aren’t already living with them.

Grandparents in recent decades have often filled in for absent parents who were ill or battled addiction, or were sent to prison. The latest trend of grandparent involvement, reflected in census figures released Thursday, is now being driven also by the economy and the graying U.S. population, including the 78 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who began turning 65 this year.

“We help out in terms of running errands, babysitting, taking the grandkids to doctors’ appointments, and for back-to-school shopping,” said Doug Flockhart of Exeter, N.H., listing some of the activities that he and his wife, Eileen, do for their five kids and seven grandchildren. But that’s just the start.

They also pitch in with health care payments for family members due to insurance gaps, and their pace of activity has picked up substantially since their daughter, who lives three blocks away, gave birth to her first child this month.

Flockhart, a retired architect, likes the family time even if he and his wife worry about their grandkids’ futures. Their oldest grandchild is 16.

“It’s not so much the day in and day out, it’s the big picture as to how these young kids will grow up and pay for a college education and buy a house,” he said. “The middle class is so much less well-off than it used to be. We’ve put aside some savings for them, but with seven grandchildren it can only go so far.”

Flockhart’s situation is increasingly common, demographers say.

“Grandparents have become the family safety net, and I don’t see that changing any time soon,” said Amy Goyer, a family expert at AARP. “While they will continue to enjoy their traditional roles, including spending on gifts for grandchildren, I see them increasingly paying for the extras that parents are struggling to keep up with—sports, camps, tutoring or other educational needs, such as music lessons.”

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