'I wouldn't trade it for the world': Grandparents increasingly becoming primary caregivers

An apartment building in downtown Washington, D.C., is catering to a new kind of family unit that is becoming more common in the U.S. and Canada in part because of the devastating toll of the opioid crisis: families where the primary caregiver is a grandparent.

Subsidized apartments in a Washington, D.C., building cater to a growing trend

Tonya Carter has had custody of her granddaughter Akirah, 10, for eight years. As a grandfamily in Washington, D.C., they've 'been through a lot,' Tonya said. 'I never imagined I would be raising a newborn all over again, but I wouldn't trade it for the world because I love her so much.' (CBC)

The best part about 10-year-old Akirah Carter's new home is that she feels safe there. 

"Now I'm here, I get to go outside. I get to play," she said. 

Akirah and her grandmother Tonya, 58, moved into their new two-bedroom apartment in August. It's on the 11th floor of an apartment building not far from Chinatown in downtown Washington, D.C. The neighbourhood is full of glittering highrises and hipsters — and it feels a world away from the Carters' old home. 

"Where we used to live there was a lot of guns, shooting and fighting," said Tonya. "It was terrible."

The Carters qualify for their new home because they are part of a growing trend: families where the primary caregiver is a grandparent. They're called grandfamilies. 

Tonya got custody of Akirah when the child was two after concerns were raised that her mother was neglecting her. Akirah's dad — Tonya's son — is in the picture, but grandma is very much in charge.

"We've been through a lot," said Tonya. "I never imagined I would be raising a newborn all over again, but I wouldn't trade it for the world because I love her so much."

Akirah does homework in her new kitchen at Plaza West, which is run by Mission First, a D.C.-based non-profit real estate group, and caters to families headed by grandparents. (CBC)

A report by the non-profit group Generations United estimates 2.5 million U.S. children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives in a home where the child's parent is not present. A small study by the non-profit health care group Altarum puts the number even higher, at 7.8 million children living in grandparent-led households. 

It says although grandparents have historically stepped in to provide support when families are in trouble, "they are now being called upon to assume primary parental responsibility for their grandchildren in unprecedented numbers."

The opioid crisis is part of the reason why this is happening. Twenty-per cent of the grandparents surveyed by Altarum said they were raising children because of parental drug abuse. 

In Canada in 2011, about 72,000 grandparents age 45 or older lived with their grandchildren in "skip-generation" households, that is, with no middle generation present, Statistics Canada reported in 2015.

Legislation meant to help grandfamilies

In the U.S. in July, President Donald Trump signed the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which created a federal advisory council to support grandfamilies and disseminate information on resources they can tap into.

It's a recognition that these families face unique situations, often navigating trauma, grief, poverty and health challenges related to aging. 

Fifty apartments at Plaza West are designated for grandfamilies. The subsidized monthly rents range from $688 US to $1,079, less than half the average in the neighbourhood. (CBC)

Plaza West, where the Carters live, is designed to address those challenges. Much of that work is done by Jamarl Clark, the community life manager or, as he puts it, uncle to the 30 grandfamilies who have moved in since the summer. 

"Sometimes, I get filled up with emotion," he said. "I mean, it's remarkable just to see them and how they are raising the children." 

The building is operated by Mission First, a D.C.-based non-profit real estate group that relies on public subsidies and private donations. There are 50 apartments on 10 floors dedicated to the grandfamilies program. 

To qualify to live there, grandparents have to be older than 55 and be raising a child or children younger than 17. Grand-nieces and -nephews count. 

'It's not just a place to live'

Rents range from  $688 US to $1,079 a month for a two- or three-bedroom apartment, less than half the average rent in the neighbourhood. Clark says it has been a challenge to fill all the apartments because families must meet the D.C. income requirements for subsidized housing. Families with an income of more than $32,000 a year don't qualify. 

Mission First is recruiting for the final 20 units. 

"It's not just a place to live," said Clark, "but also a program that has activities for the children and focuses on the health and wellness of the seniors." 

Akirah plays with Pokemon cards in her bedroom. Her new home 'feels really normal,' she said. 'Now I have some people who are, you know, the same as me.' (CBC)

Take the gym. Not only does it have new treadmills and stationary bikes, but the equipment features extra-large displays for aging eyes. The hallways and doorways are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and all the units have emergency pull cords to call for help. 

I guess it feels really normal.- Akirah Carter, 10

There's a computer room, too. On a recent afternoon, Renee Simpson and her 13-year-old granddaughter, Khaniya, were trying to figure out the printer. It's all new to them. 

"We had nothing like this," Simpson said, referring to their old home. "Nothing, nothing, nothing." 

This building has a large community room on the roof, and there are plans to build a library.

The idea is that grandparents, who never imagined themselves running after little ones well into retirement age, can support each other. And the children can make friends with other kids in a similar circumstance. It seems to be working,

"I guess it feels really normal," said Akirah Carter. "A lot of my friends live with their parents. So now I have some people who are, you know, the same as me."


Lyndsay Duncombe

Senior reporter

Lyndsay Duncombe is a senior reporter with CBC national news, based in Vancouver. She's been at CBC for more than two decades, with postings in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Winnipeg and in her home province of Saskatchewan.


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