Every morning, June Brooker, 65, wakes up at six to make her grandkids breakfast. She bustles around her small kitchen in her routine, her facial expressions alternating between pursed smiles and worried frowns. She pops two waffles into the toaster for Aleia, the youngest, and makes toast for the older two, Dale and Alexis. She does the dishes and wearily eyes the stacks of boxes piled three feet up with old magazines that sit in the corner of the cramped kitchen. She says she’s been hoping to organize them for some months now. Soon it’s time for her grandkids to go to school. The younger one takes the school bus and the older two are picked up by a driver who drops them at their school in Canarsie, a 45-minute ride away. Brooker says she pays the driver $100 a week.
Brooker shares a two-family unit in Flatbush with her husband (he asked that his name not be included); her son J.B, 40; and his three kids. Aleia is 10, Dale is 14 and Alexis, 16. This extended-family living situation has been the reality for Brooker for more than a decade and may be for many more years to come, as she has become the primary caregiver of her grandchildren.
“The kids are well behaved and quiet. They are not fussy and I love taking care of them. But it is hard.”
– June Brooker, grandmother
And it’s not easy. “I make only $2,000 a month from Social Security and pension benefits and it’s nowhere enough to get by, especially in this household,” she says.
Her husband also get Social Security and pension, totaling around $900 a month, and her son J.B, who does not have a steady job, contributes around $200 a week towards the household by doing freelance yard or carpentry work.
A recent Pew Center study reported that an estimated 7.7 million children under the age of 18 in the United States—or one in 10—were living with a grandparent, up roughly a million from 2000. Of these, 3.3 million were also being cared for primarily by that grandparent. Thus, among co-resident grandparents, roughly four-in-ten (39 percent) also serve as the primary caregiver to a grandchild in the household.
Brooker, originally from Trinidad, worked as a payout clerk for Metlife Insurance Company for 32 years. Her job entailed paying retirement benefits to the elderly. She was fondly called “Mother Met” at work. She retired in 2002.
She was accustomed to taking care of her grandkids, but she became more involved in their upbringing when her son and his wife separated almost a decade ago which has been difficult for him, and he kept full custody of the children. “I had to tap into my 401k and other retirement savings,” said Brooker. “The kids are well behaved and quiet. They are not fussy and I love taking care of them. But it is hard.”
She worries about outliving her retirement funds, which are dwindling at a faster rate than she had expected now that she’s the primary caregiver. She also uses her 401k as a source to pay her property taxes, and pays a heavy penalty every time she withdraws. She doesn’t see how she can take a vacation for the next five years.
“I really hope I’m OK, and that I don’t have to struggle much more than this, but every single month I worry about how to get by,” she said. “There is some help from my family members. But I now have to figure out what to do about my future, and if I live up to a hundred. Where is the money coming from?”
While her mortgage is paid off, sources of income keep narrowing, while bills for the house and living expenses keep expanding. Brooker is looking forward to her grandkids growing up.