Thirtysomething grandparents need social services to adapt, says study

Research has led to calls for changes in government policy and a remodelling of provision to help this vulnerable group

Services need to be reformed to adapt to a new demographic of thirtysomething grandparents often enduring poverty and deprivation in Britain's most blighted communities, experts warn.

Authoritative research, to be launched in Westminster on Monday, has led to calls for changes in government policy and a remodelling of social service provision to help this hidden but growing group of vulnerable young people.

The project, Timescapes: Changing Lives and Times, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, found charities working with impoverished communities are adapting their services to support those in their mid-30s who are forced to take on the role as parents to two younger generations while often caring for elderly parents at the same time.

"High rates of young motherhood and closely spaced generations is an increasingly common experience in some of the most deprived areas in the country, with grandparents often having children of a similar age to their own grandchildren," said Dr Kahryn Hughes of the University of Leeds, a co-author of the research.

"High rates of midlife disability, mid- to later-life illness, and early mortality rates mean that becoming a midlife grandparent – from 35 years onwards – is increasingly seen as the right time in these areas."

The study, which has been following more than 300 families for 11 years across northern England, found that rather than conforming to the traditional "leisure and pleasure" ideal of grandparenting, midlife grandparents were often providing help that keeps their families together – and their grandchildren out of the care system.

It was, Hughes said, a "firefighting" form of grandparenting. "This highly vulnerable and marginalised group are sacrificing their own health, futures and finances to provide care that ranges from being the rock that keeps their grandchildren's families together to having their grandchildren come to live with them full-time," she said.

Hughes also discovered, however, that social services were failing to adjust to families in which a grandparent was forced to take on the role of surrogate parent to their grandchild.

When her teenage daughter had a baby, 34-year-old Ruth found that the teenage pregnancy service officers who visited the family at home focused solely on her daughter. "At the age of 14, my daughter wasn't capable of going down the post office and claiming her child benefit on her own," Ruth said. "By not listening to me, services designed to help in times of need were not even able to understand what the needs of my family really were."

Sue Stewart, who became a grandmother at 39 and took on full-time care for two of her grandchildren, agreed. "It's hard for social services to get their heads around the fact that a young woman can be a grandparent," she said. "Society's changing and they're not keeping up to speed. And it's the children who suffer."

Hughes found that although formal health and social care providers called on grandparents in emergency situations, they were unaware of the crucial and highly demanding day-to-day support young grandparents gave to their own, often barely adult children.

"Mid-age grandparents who take on parental responsibility for their grandchildren struggle to access benefits and services amid complex relationships with health and social care providers," Hughes said.

"Young grandparents can often find themselves in conflicting situations when formal health and social care services become involved in their grandchildren's lives. They can be acting as mother to two generations within the family but are not seen as having parental responsibilities for their grandchildren by service providers."

One issue, researchers found, was the increasing pressure public and third-sector organisations were under to provide targeted services. "These changes in policy are undermining their ability to deliver comprehensive services that address the worst effects of poverty," Hughes said. "There is a need for new thinking around how services can support grandparents to help them give their grandchildren the best start in life."

Dave Cousins, from the Grandparents' Association, has seen such an increase in young grandparents in recent years that he is setting up dedicated, specialised groups to support them.

"We are also getting an ever-increasing number of calls from Sure Start centres and Family Outreach workers asking what they should do about this new but rapidly increasing group," he said.

Cousins believes government policies must change to address this new demographic. He points to statistics released last week by the Office for National Statistics, which show that the north-south divide in life expectancy has worsened over the past decade, with the average life expectancy for both sexes in greater Glasgow now lower than in Albania, and nearer to that of the Palestinian territories than to the wealthier London boroughs.

"This is an issue closely associated with shortened life expectancies and early onset health problems," he said.

A couple's view

Jayne Fox and her husband, Ken, became grandparents three years ago, aged 37 and 41, when their 18-year-old daughter Katherine gave birth to Luke. They are the child's full-time carers

"We were married young – I was just 18. We started having our children right away because we wanted to be healthy and fit enough to still enjoy ourselves after they had grown up and left home.

"It hasn't worked out like that – and yes, if I'm honest, I am angry and frustrated by it. My youngest, Kaylee, had just become independent enough for me to get a job for the first time in my life when we had to take on full responsibility for our grandson. I had to give up work and go back to being a full-time parent all over again.

"When Luke was born, I did think, 'I'm too young to be a grandmother.' But when I saw him, I felt so much love that I had no choice but to sacrifice my own hopes to give him the best start in life.

"One big difference between my generation having children young and the next generation doing the same is that we tended to marry and stay together. This generation have children outside of stable relationships.

"This means grandparents have to take on much heavier responsibilities for their grandchildren. It's not fair on us but it's how things are.

"Being a grandmother at this age isn't all bad, though. I have more energy to have fun with Luke than I would if I was a more traditional grandmother's age. Also, if I had the health issues that people around here tend to get when they're a bit older, I might not have been granted the residency order and Luke could have ended up in care.

"Also, while it's definitely an odd situation for Kaylee to be only 10 years older than her nephew, it might make it easier for Luke: he's being bought up by his grandmother but people don't realise that because they see me and assume I'm his mother. It hides the fact that his mother isn't around.

"I can certainly see grandparents getting younger around my neighbourhood. There's a girl nearby who is just 31 years old and already has a granddaughter. It's incredibly difficult: she is still a mother to her 15-year-old daughter but now has to be a mother to a new baby too.

"Society is lagging behind in its recognition of how much things are changing. The traditional image of an old grandparent is out-of-date and out-of-touch."

• This article was amended on 17 June 2011 to make clear where Kahryn Hughes is based.


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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