It was just a quick errand: Reba would be gone 15 minutes, 20 max. But her two granddaughters ran to her as if they didn’t know when they’d see her next. “Wait, wait, I want a hug!” screamed Denise, 11.
Michelle, 13, followed close behind. “I love you, grandma! I love you, grandma!” they murmured. “I love you, too, baby,” she replied to each of them.
The burst of affection for such a short absence was the only sign the girls might have faced some chaos in their lives. The two-storey house in Portland, Oregon, was immaculate. Brightly framed photos of the girls hung on the walls, and their shoes were lined up neatly underneath.
The school year had just ended, and earlier that day, the girls had been upstairs, listening to music while cleaning their rooms, putting clothes aside to give away – as instructed by grandma.
Reba, 53, wanted the girls to know that this is a real home and a real family – even if the middle generation, the girls’ parents, is absent. “I’ve put myself on the back burner. I’m not travelling; I’m not lying on a beach in Hawaii,” she says.
“I’m bringing up my grandchildren and I’m good with that.”
Reba is part of a growing cohort. Over 16% of American children who live with a grandparent have no parent present, according to the latest census data, a figure that has ballooned in a single generation. Compared with 1990, when only 5% of children lived in grandparent-run households, older American adults are experiencing an unprecedented role reversal: instead of adult children providing assistance to their ageing parents, an increasing number of seniors are looking after their adult offspring, including stepping in to take over their parental duties.
The grandparents’ responsibilities range from giving parents the occasional night off to the 22% of American grandparents who sustain their adult children by providing regular childcare and financial assistance, according to a Pew report.
The ultimate responsibility rests with the 2.9 million American
grandparents who live with the kids with no parents around. The parents’
addictions, including to crack cocaine and opioids, are often a major
These grandparents are bringing toddlers to doctors’ appointments, supervising homework, chores and playdates – much like Reba, who is disabled and uses a walker to get around.
Many of these grandparents had long anticipated some type of crisis. But for Reba it was a brisk transition. Five years ago she was living with her sister’s family in a suburb of San Francisco while working on a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration. Then she got an unexpected phone call. Her granddaughters, then seven and eight, had been removed from their home due to parental neglect and were now in Portland’s foster care system, she was told by an employee of Oregon’s department of human services.
“Would I come and do the classes and take responsibility for them? And I said, ‘yes, I’ll be there as soon as I can.’ And within two days I was on a plane with just one suitcase and the clothes I had on my back,” recalled Reba. The required background checks and training took two months. Only then did the Oregon department of human services hand the children over to Reba and help her new multigenerational family find a suitable place to live.
Ultimately, that place was Bridge Meadows, a co-housing community in Portland with a rare vocation: to enable foster children to be adopted by a family member – an adult sibling, an aunt or a grandparent like Reba. Thirty youngsters now call Bridge Meadows home. It’s the first of three multigenerational co-housing communities in Portland, in which each female-led family lives in its own townhouse. Unrelated retirees, all living in apartments on-site, live in the community, too, in order to support and mentor these nascent families. These 27 “elders”, all between 55 and 93, tutor the children, take them to swimming lessons, help with homework, or just provide the love, oversight and companionship that’s par for the course among extended family members who live close by. In return, the retirees gain a purpose, a crucial one – and a reprieve from the social isolation common to older Americans. . . .