Six-year-old Cameron Williams bounded down the steep steps of the outdoor bleachers at Boston’s English High School on a sweltering evening. He paused, wide-eyed, to watch an adult kickboxing class on his way to a youth track and field program.
“Be careful, it’s hot,” called his attentive grandmother, Gail Williams, 68, of Roxbury. “Don’t go over there, Cam. . . . Hey, young man, your program’s about to start.”
A retired school guidance counselor, Williams was perched in the bleachers surrounded by parents a generation younger, chattering about their kids, the heat, and summer plans. She’s one of about 35,000 grandparents in Massachusetts who are raising grandchildren — a contingent that’s swelled across the nation over the past two decades amid a spike in drug addiction and a hornet’s nest of other ills that have sidelined their own children.
Williams watched Cam, a baseball cap shielding his face from the late-day sun, dart off to join a clutch of children close to his age on the grass near the high school track. Soon the coaches were putting them through their paces, running in circles with batons. “This is good,” Williams said. “By the time I get him home, I just get him in the shower and put him to bed.”
Caregivers like Williams have been thrust back into a parenting role at a time when their empty-nester friends are traveling, pursuing hobbies, or relaxing at the beach. They’ve become reacquainted with the once-familiar routines of changing diapers, monitoring homework, inspiring and consoling, and shuttling kids to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese.
“We’re back in the bouncy house,” said Raymond Fuller Jr., 76, of Hyde Park, a former Polaroid lab technician who is raising three grandchildren with his wife.
Their lives are far from easy. But despite some unique stresses, such as balancing child-rearing with the health conditions that come with aging or navigating intermittent tension with the parents who come in and out of their children’s lives, most grandparent caregivers appear to be coping as well as biological or adoptive parents, the latest research shows.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in parenting grandparents,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., who co-authored a national study last year that concluded grandparents are usually up to the required tasks. “These are situations where parents can’t meet the needs of their children, and grandparents are often the best option.”
There are approximately 3 million grandparents raising more than 7 million grandchildren in the United States, according to data from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But those figures may not capture the entire picture. They don’t include grandparents who are in full-time parenting roles but aren’t legal guardians or those who don’t live with their grandchildren but take care of them when both parents are working.
In what’s expected to be the most comprehensive state survey to date, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have been reaching out to people raising grandchildren in the state this summer and plan to report to policymakers next month. But even before their findings are presented, it’s clear the ranks of parenting grandparents are “an order of magnitude larger than 20 years ago,” said Dr. Heather Forkey, clinical director of the foster children evaluation service at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.
While the largest driver is the opioid epidemic, which has led to thousands of deaths in Massachusetts and left thousands more unable to raise children, other forms of substance abuse, domestic violence, physical or mental health issues, unsafe housing, financial setbacks, and incarceration have also wreaked havoc on the traditional family structure.
“There’s been a big uptick in the number of kids coming into [state] custody, and there are fewer homes for these kids,” said Forkey, who’s worked with foster children in Massachusetts since 1997. “When the grandparents have already had a role in the children’s lives, that makes it easier for the child. Many grandparents are good in providing nurturing, stability, and support and a safe place for these children to heal when the rest of their lives are unraveling.”
Often, parenting grandparents are struggling with same issues as their grandchildren, dealing with the children’s troubled parents, and in the most tragic cases mourning their loss. Still, they bring motivation and experience to their caregiving, which many see as a mission.
“Some remarkable growth and recovery happens in these situations,” Forkey said.
Many grandparents won’t discuss the specific circumstances that prompted them to take responsibility for their grandchildren because the subject is painful and, in some cases, they’re in custody battles with their children. But in interviews, they described parenting 2.0 in moving and sometimes amusing terms.
“Like any job, you get better at it” the more you do it, said Williams, who is also raising two older grandsons. “I’ve been to more birthdays parties in the last six years . . . the cake, the ice cream.”
“My social group is now moms with little kids,” said Linda Baldwin, 67, of East Boston, a visiting nurse who’s raising a grandson and a granddaughter. “I’m hanging out with young moms, and it’s kind of fun. They call and say, ‘We’re going to Canobie Lake,’ and I just want to sit home and watch ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ But I go because I want my kids to have normal lives.”
At a recent conference for grandparents raising grandchildren, Governor Charlie Baker said his administration was working on ways to boost support for those who had stepped up. He expressed gratitude to the attending grandparents with deeply personal words.
“The hands you’re playing are ones that require a spectacular amount of love and courage and grit and commitment and kindness,” Baker said. “And they come at a point in your life where that’s not where you expected to be. . . . If you’re working, you have to figure out how to incorporate all of that in your own lives. If you’re retired, you’re not retired anymore. If you thought you were going to be a grandparent that got to deal with the benefit of having grandchildren without the burden that came with having children, well for the time being that’s gone.”
For many grandparents, the burden is also a blessing. They’re able to offer a “second chance” to children who are trapped in an unstable family situation. Some see it as a second chance for themselves, too, as they cope with their own children’s struggles.
Many also describe the experience of raising another generation as a way to keep them young and engaged in the world. When called back to parenthood, Baldwin remembered, “you didn’t have the time to think about getting old. You just took the diaper and ran.”
While they bristle when some younger parents of their grandchildren’s schoolmates exclude them from activities, they enjoy being tapped by others as a resource.
“Young parents look at us as a point of wisdom,” said Audrey Fannon, 72, a retired hospital administrator from West Roxbury who’s raising two grandsons. “We were at a basketball game in Savin Hill and one of the parents asked, ‘Do you remember when they landed on the moon?’ ”
One of their toughest challenges is letting their grandkids know why they’re raising them.
“Their biological parents are not in their lives, and you have to tell them why,” Fuller said. “And the longer you wait to tell them, the harder it is.” Without being critical or judgmental, he said, the grandparents have to explain to the kids that their parents are grappling with difficult problems and aren’t able to take care of them. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want you to be in the same predicament. I’m going to be there for you. I’m going to help you get through this.’ ”
Like caregivers everywhere, parenting grandparents have hopes and dreams and worries, along with strategies for overcoming obstacles. Many said they draw on their religious faith to help them — and the grandchildren they’re raising — strengthen their resolve.
“My faith sustains me,” said Williams, who takes young Cam to St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury. “Sometimes, he’ll say to me, ‘Mama, let’s go to church today.’ ”
Fuller said bringing his grandchildren to the Morningside Baptist Church in Mattapan helps him understand his own priorities at this stage of life and keep things in perspective.
“Am I happy?” he said. “Yes, I am. It keeps me alive. My friends ask, ‘How do you do it?’ And I point to my grandkids. I say, ‘They’re the ones I do it for. It’s not about me, it’s about them.’ ”
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.