Grandparents who are raising orphaned grandchildren

I was listening to a podcast about politics when a staggering statistic popped out at me, and made it impossible for me to keep listening. In the US, 140,000 children have lost one parent to COVID and 20,000 have lost both parents. That’s one in 500 children.

Photo by Nikoline Arns on Unsplash

The British medical journal Lancet wrote about this in July, and had estimates that were even more staggering:

“Globally, from March 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021, we estimate 1,134,000 children (95% credible interval 884,000–1,185,000) experienced the death of primary caregivers, including at least one parent or custodial grandparent. 1,562,000 children (1,299,000–1,683,000) experienced the death of at least one primary or secondary caregiver. Countries in our study set with primary caregiver death rates of at least one per 1000 children included Peru (10·2 per 1000 children), South Africa (5·1), Mexico (3·5), Brazil (2·4), Colombia (2·3), Iran (1·7), the USA (1·5), Argentina (1·1), and Russia (1·0). Numbers of children orphaned exceeded numbers of deaths among those aged 15–50 years. Between two and five times more children had deceased fathers than deceased mothers.”

The loss, for each one of those children, will remain with them always. I think of my own parents, each of whom lost a parent when they were very young, and how it shaped their adult lives. 

And I cannot imagine what happens when that kind of terrible loss happens to more than a million children.

“Among the 21 countries included in our study, those with more than one in 1000 children experiencing a COVID-19-associated death in a primary caregiver were Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, the USA, and Russia. For adults aged 15–50 years, the estimated number of children orphaned was greater than the number of adult deaths. Overall, there were up to five times more children with deceased fathers than deceased mothers.”

And, the article adds, this occurs “against a backdrop of more than 140 million existing orphans in need of global health and social care prioritisation.”

By September 2021, 2.3 million children had lost their primary caregiver to the pandemic, The Conversation reported.

Grandmothers to grandmothers

We have some idea of how this staggering sort of loss affects societies. It happened in Africa during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when so many parents died and left their parents caring for their children. Grandparents, mostly grandmothers, raising their grandchildren.

It was not something anyone realized right away. A group of Canadian grandmothers in Wakefield, Quebec, started to see it early in 2002, through two filmmakers who lived in the community and a child psychologist who had spent a year in South Africa with her husband during his sabbatical.

Nina Minde had volunteered at a children’s mental health clinic in Alexandra township, a tightly packed ghetto that was home to nearly 340,000 people. Shocked to see more and more children being brought to the clinic by their grandmothers because their parents were dead or dying from AIDS, and herself a grandmother, Nina offered to run a support group with clinic head nurse Rose Letwaba.

While not much attention was being paid to grandparents in 2002, Rose saw them as the silent victims of AIDS. She invited three grannies to a meeting and they told their stories and everyone cried a lot. The next week, there were five, and then there were 10 and there was no more room in Rose’s office. The grannies said they needed help in getting over the loss of their daughters and raising their grandchildren, who were often sad and angry; many of them had been plunged back into poverty. But as they met, and became more confident in their own abilities and shared their knowledge, they started to blossom and become more joyful.

This led Wakefield grannies to start work to help those grannies in Alexandra township –  at about the same time the Stephen Lewis Foundation began to realize that it was seeing more and more requests for help from granny groups in Africa.

Pixabay on Pexels

This led to the creation of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.

“When the AIDS pandemic swept across the continent of Africa, it took the lives of nearly an entire generation – 35 million perished – which left their children alone and vulnerable. With little or no support, it was the grandmothers of Africa who stepped in to care for these children.

“The Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign in 2006, in response to the emerging crisis faced by African grandmothers as they struggled to raise millions of children orphaned by AIDS.

“Grandmothers and grandothers in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have rallied in response, creating a dynamic movement. They raise funds in their communities to support the life-enhancing programs run by African grandmothers and the community-based organizations who support them.

“The grandmothers movement amplifies the voices and expertise of African grandmothers, and shows the world that leadership by older women is critical in reclaiming hope and rebuilding resilience across communities.”

Some aid programs did recognize the need for support for orphaned children. In 2003,The Conversation noted, the US aid program PEPFAR mandated that 10% of its funds would support children whose primary caregivers had died of AIDS or had acquired HIV, and it continues to support families caring for children who lost caregivers to AIDS.

Where do we find hope now?

While the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit Africa very hard, COVID has hit every country hard. But, just as it was in the early days in Africa, the role of grandparents in caring for their orphaned grandchildren has not attracted much attention until recently.

“Articles mention children “bringing home” the coronavirus from school or daycare to family members, but usually regarding those co-residing due to older adult caregiving needs (not of grandchildren being dependent upon the grandparents for primary care). With all of the teeth-gnashing over this pandemic, grandfamilies in which grandparents are solely responsible for their grandchildren have barely hit the radar,” the American Council on Aging said in 2018.

Even before COVID, it says, “the number of children being raised by grandparents in the United States doubled between 1970 and 2010, and now almost 6 million children live in grandparent-headed households. Approximately 2.6 million of these children live in grandparent homes where no parent is present.” For every child in foster care with relatives, it adds, “there are 20 children being raised by grandparents or other relatives outside the foster care system.” Many care for multiple grandchildren simultaneously and more than 36% have done so for more than five years, it says.

The US government has adopted legislation to support grandparents raising grandchildren -the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act. It established an Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, whose job is to identify, promote, coordinate, and disseminate information, resources, and best practices available to help grandparents and other older relatives meet the needs of the children in their care; and maintain their own physical and mental health and emotional well-being. On October 20, 2020, it finalized 22 recommendations.

Those recommendations will become part of the National Family Caregiving Strategy, which was scheduled to begin development this year, which would “outline critical actions that can be taken at the federal, state levels, by local communities as well as health, long-term services providers and others to better support family caregivers in ways that reflect their diverse needs.” The Council was scheduled to hold its fourth meeting on November 16, 2021, having previously met in August 2019, April 2020, and September 2020.


Global minimum estimates of children affected by COVID-19-associated orphanhood and deaths of caregivers: a modelling study. The Lancet, Jul. 31, 2021

Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. Stephen Lewis Foundation.

‘An army of grey haired women has taken over the earth’. Hopebuilding, Sep. 1, 2011

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and COVID-19: Overlaying Risks, Uncertain Outcomes. American Society on Aging, undated but probably 2018.

COVID-19 Fact Sheet for Grandfamilies and Multigenerational Families. Generations United.

Children are losing caregivers to COVID-19: they need support. The Conversation, Sep. 23, 2021

Impacts of COVID-19 and other tragedies leave many Florida grandparents raising grandchildren. AARP, Aug. 13, 2021


Hidden Pain: Children Who Lost A Parent or Caregiver to COVID 19 and What The Nation Can Do To Help Them. Social Policy Analytics and COVID Collaborative, December 2021.

Children, Coping With Loss, Are Pandemic’s ‘Forgotten Grievers’. New York Times, Dec. 9, 2021.