Gail Engel in Loveland, Colorado, and her husband have dealt with hardships as their oldest daughter has suffered from childhood trauma, mental health challenges, and alcoholism. After their daughter gave birth to a baby boy, Gail noticed he had a difficult time connecting with his mom and began having behavioral challenges as he grew up. Gail soon found herself stretched thin — having to play tug of war between being a nurturing grandmother to a grandson with behavioral issues and a supportive parent to her daughter. In 2006, Gail took in her grandson and began to raise him as his permanent caregiver. 

Although Gail was happy to have Bryson be an addition to her household, caring for him was difficult, as is common for most caregivers in grandfamilies (families with grandparents, other adult family members or close family friends who are raising children). At age 9, Bryson was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, and other behavioral issues due to his mother’s battle with alcoholism during pregnancy.

Being a grandfamily weighed heavily on Gail’s marriage, the relationship with her youngest daughter, and her health, which made it more difficult to raise Bryson. One of her greatest challenges was the inability to find the proper support to care for him. Gail often felt alone in her journey.

“The biggest thing was I couldn’t find support … couldn’t find people who understood what we were going through. I needed someone to help me understand what he was going through and the challenges of getting him in school.”

A Sigh of Relief

In 2015, Gail met a woman who was also raising grandchildren. Both began sharing stories and providing support to each other. “That’s when I realized, I’m not the only one,” Gail shared. 

Gail discovered there were many grandparents, like her, who were also raising their grandchildren and needed the same supports she had been seeking. This realization prompted Gail to take solutions into her own hands. 

Supporting Groups of Grandfamilies

She started the Grand Family Coalition to act as a support group and provide aid to others who were having a difficult time raising grandkids.

The majority of grandfamilies in Gail’s support group didn’t plan their retirement based on being a caregiver, causing them to struggle financially. Many grandfamilies participate in government assistance programs including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to help provide their family with basic necessities, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and food banks to help put food on the table. 

When COVID-19 hit Colorado and stay-in-place orders commenced, grandfamilies in Gail’s group saw their daily lives change, especially their means for food support. They received increases in SNAP benefits for kids who qualified for free-and-reduced lunch and were able to participate in school lunch pick up at nearby distribution sites. 

Also, for Gail and other grandparents raising kids with trauma, the change of adapting to online schooling and in-house isolation prompted some kids to overeat. 

“Do you know how many of our grandchildren hoard food? They get into the pantry. Even my grandson will get into the pantry and find food. And they’re over eaters because they want to know that they’re not going to lose that. We talked about not losing stability at home and as a family, but they also don’t want to lose food.”

Additionally, 43% of the grandfamilies surveyed in Generations United 2020 annual State of Grandfamilies report, Facing a Pandemic: Grandfamilies Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond, are fearful of contracting the virus due to having pre-existing illness. They are afraid of losing their lives because they are the only caregiver for their grandchildren, but only 30% have no alternative plan (for care for their child) should they die or become disabled.

“Our grandparents are in extreme fear of losing their life. And if they lose their life, who’s going to take care of our kids if we die?”

A Silver Lining

Despite the difficulties of being a grandfamily, raising Bryson has been one of Gail’s greatest joys. Through the Grand Families Coalition, Gail formed friendships and received the support she longed for, and created avenues to help others like her. 

“When I started with him, I had no friends. Now, all of my friends are grandparents raising grandchildren. I have a network of grandparents that I just adore each and every one of them. When we get together, it feels so good to know that we don’t have to explain ourselves. We understand each other.”

Read more stories like Gail’s and see recommendations from Generations United about how we can create more responsive policies and systems that will better support the 2.7 million grandfamilies living in the United States.