"Grandparents provide broad and underappreciated safety nets for families all over the world. Often they do so because they have the means and the time, but often their help demands heroic sacrifices. Usually when the issue of dependency arises in relation to aging populations, it is the worries about dependent elderly that come up. Yet older people often provide services at little or no cost, and most often actually pay out of their own pockets to provide services that keep the rest of productive society humming in the workplace and consuming outside it. . . .

"The most common regret grandparents express is that they are robbed of the experience of being a grandparent, and instead are put in the role of being a parent, with lots of extra baggage. 'They have to start with the grandchildren's necessities, instead of spoiling them. They have to provide discipline, food, and set boundaries, rather than be the grandparents who indulge their grandchildren.' Grandparents also ask for ways to alleviate the isolation their guardianship causes. Time the grandparents might otherwise spend with friends their own age, or in activities outside the house, gets spent instead on providing what the grandchildren need.

"Moreover, the grandparents' efforts may be out of step with how people think children ought to be raised today. And they have ideas about spanking and other discipline that may not work, especially for older people whose grandchildren can threaten them. . . . Failed parenting has consequences across generations. Children who, for example, were abused are more prone later to be abusive parents and abusive caregivers. And their children can be abusive wards in their grandparents' homes, too. . . .

"Overall, however, the grandparents provide family services — emotional values aside — on a massive scale. Using a conservative calculus, the Urban Institute estimates that in 2002, in the United States, grandparents — acting either as full-time or part-time caregivers — provided $39.2 billion worth of unpaid services to their grandchildren. When the care for older parents, spouses, and their own children is added in, Americans over fifty-five provided $100 billion in family care."