California Leads Nation in Growing Numbers of Grandparent Caregivers

More than 1 in 10 American grandparents raise a grandchild for at least 6 months, with most of these grandparents providing care for three years or more. In addition, for almost three quarters of these grandparents, caregiving begins when the child is an infant or preschooler, often requiring a particularly intense degree of care. This trend represents an almost 30 percent increase in the number of children nationwide living in grandparent-headed households as compared to the 1990 Census (see 2000 Census report). California has had an almost 50 percent increase, with 625,934 children under age 18 now living in grandparent-headed households. This equals 6.8 percent of all the children in the state.

The close to 300,000 grandparents in California responsible for raising their minor grandchildren in 2000 give California the highest number of such caregivers in the nation (Census source, 2000). According to 2000 Census data, nine counties had more than 10,000 grandparent caregivers: Alameda, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, and Tulare. With this growing trend, advocates, providers and policy makers working with California’s older adult population can benefit from knowing a bit more about this population – namely understanding:

  • Who are these grandparents as caregivers?
  • Why are we seeing increasing numbers of grandparents being the sole caregivers of their grandchildren, and what are the challenges/benefits experienced?
  • What are some resources available?

Profile of California’s grandparents as caregivers

Most of California’s custodial grandparents are married (75 percent), female (59 percent), and employed (56 percent). About 22 percent live in poverty (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002). California’s grandparents raising grandchildren typically occupy this position for a period of several years, with over one third of them being solely responsible for childcare for five years or more.


Although about a third of relative caregivers are white, African Americans and Latinos have an increased likelihood of taking on this role. Nationwide, African American children are more likely than non Hispanic white children to be living in “kinship care” households — those in which children have been formally placed with their grandparents or other relatives –a fact reflecting both current socioeconomic realities and a long history of caregiving across generations in Black families (US Bureau of the Census, 2000; Minkler and Odiema, 2001).

Also, in predominantly non-white inner city areas, rates of children living with their grandparents may be considerably higher. Estimates suggest that in large inner city areas, 30 to 50 percent of grandparents are providing primary care for their grandchildren (McBroom, 1997; Minkler and Odiema, 2001). In addition, figures on the number of grandparent caregivers often do not include undocumented immigrant relative caregivers.

Reasons for rising trend in grandparents as caregivers

Some primary reasons for this dramatic rise in grandparent caregiving include: substance abuse; the rise in single parent households; HIV/AIDS; sharp increases in female incarceration; teen pregnancy; and policy changes favoring foster care placement of children with relatives over non-relatives (GrandsPlace fact sheet, 2007; Minkler, 1999).

The fact that an estimated 15 percent of American women aged 15-44 are substance abusers, and that almost 40 percent of these women have children living with them (National Institute on Drug Abuse), suggest that drug and alcohol abuse are likely to remain important contributing factors. Overall substance use rates are higher in California than in the rest of the country (Minkler and Odiema, 2001).

The HIV/AIDS epidemic is another growing contributor to the rise of grandparent caregiving. As the leading cause of death among African Americans aged 25-44, HIV/AIDS had claimed the lives of the mothers of an estimated 125,000 to 150,000 American children and youth by the year 2000 (Joslin and Harrison, 1998). Even though custody data are limited, available information indicates that grandmothers are generally the sole or primary caregivers to children whose parent is living with, or has died as a result of AIDS.

Grandparents also are primary caregivers to well over half of the children of incarcerated mothers in the U.S. (See New York Times article, July 6, 2007.) Dramatic increases in the number of imprisoned women, which grew six fold over the last decade and a half, suggest that this trend will likely continue to contribute to the growth of intergenerational households headed by grandparents. Over 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers, and California had almost 12,000 female prisoners in 2000, more than any other state (Simmons, 2000; Petersilia, 2000).

Another contributing factor to the increase in kinship care is legal mandates and changes in child welfare reimbursement policies and practices that have encouraged placement with relatives over non relative foster care (Malm and Geen, 2003). Kinship care is the fastest growing out-of-home placement funded by child welfare agencies and in many large urban areas, half of the children in out-of–home placements are in the care of relatives. Yet, laws and policies promoting formal kinship care do not explain the large simultaneous growth in the number of children who have informally been going to live with relatives. Indeed, informal estimates suggest that for every one grandchild in the formal foster care system, another six are informally being raised by relatives (Minkler and Odiema, 2001).

Ultimately, all the factors discussed above are also tied to our nation’s ongoing problem of poverty, which increases the vulnerability and challenges faced by grandparent caregivers (Minkler, 1999).

Challenges and available resources

Grandparent caregivers have both many strengths and numerous challenges in being caregivers. They are at significantly increased risk for depression, functional limitations, social isolation and financial struggle. Close to a third of grandparent caregivers suffer depression, and over half have at least one limitation in an activity of daily living (Casper and Bryson, 1998).

Relative caregivers often also have challenges in accessing needed health and other services for the children they are raising. Over 15 percent of California’s children have no health insurance, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. Also, a great majority of caregivers do not have legal custody or guardianship of the children in their care, which makes such problems particularly acute.

Listed below are some great resources for you and your clients who are relative caregivers. These resources include help with: health care; support groups; legal assistance; and a comprehensive California ‘fact sheet’ listing all this information and more.

  • Benefits QuickLINK – This online benefits screening tool screens grandparents and the children they are raising for 15 major public benefits for older adults (10) and children (5). Included in the screening results are fact sheets about each benefit with local and state agency contact information as well as live links to online program applications when available.
      • Public Benefits for Children
        • State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
        • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
        • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Child-Only Grants
        • Medicaid for Children (Medi-Cal in California)
        • Supplemental Security Income for Children
      • Public Benefits for Adults
        • Medicare Savings Programs
        • Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage
        • Medicare Part D Extra Help/Low Income Subsidy
        • State Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (SPAP)
        • Medicaid for Aged, Blind and Disabled (Medi-Cal in California)
        • Food Stamps Program
        • Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)
        • State Property Tax Relief/Rebates
        • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
        • Telephone Assistance (Link-Up and Lifeline)
  • AARP Grandparent Information Center – serves grandparents and professionals with:
      • a web site with articles, state fact sheets, and message board
      • a searchable, online database with local supportive services and programs
      • booklets in English and some are available in Spanish as well
      • “GrandCare News,” a free quarterly newsletter for grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren and professionals who support them
      • technical assistance and networking for local, state, and national organizations
      • research about grandparenting
  • California fact sheet on grandparent caregiver resources. This fact sheet includes:
    • Census data on grandparent caregivers
    • A comprehensive list of local programs, resources and services
    • State foster care policies for kinship caregivers
    • Information on key public benefits
    • Important state laws
    • National organizations that may be of help
  • California Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) – coordinates a wide variety of services for seniors and people with disabilities. This website provides links and phone numbers to each county’s AAA office. Also the Information and Referral hotline is another resource for grandparent caregiver information at 1-800-510-2020.
  • Grandparents as Parents (GAP) – located in southern California, GAP provides programs and services to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of grandparents and other relative caregivers raising children. GAP has weekly support groups in Long Beach, Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Santa Fe Springs, Pomona and Santa Clarita, informational and crisis hotlines, individual and family crisis counseling, and provides advocacy and intervention services.

Karen Joy Fletcher

Our blogger Karen Joy Fletcher is CHA’s Communications Director. With a Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, she is the online “public face” of the organization, provides technical expertise, writing and research on Medicare and other health care issues. She is responsible for digital content creation, management of CHA’s editorial calendar, and managing all aspects of CHA’s social media presence. She loves being a “communicator” and enjoys networking and collaborating with the passionate people and agencies in the health advocacy field. See her current articles.