One of those grandparents, Suzanne Kowalski, was so absorbed with taking care of two of her grandchildren that she ignored a dimple on her left breast that turned out to be a sign of cancer. By the time she sought medical care and got diagnosed a year later, in September 2011, it had spread to her lymph nodes.
"Had I not been raising the grandkids, I would have gone to the doctor at least a year earlier because I wouldn't have been so financially strapped," she said. "My energy level would not have been so low. … I was giving all my attention to them."
Kowalski — like other grandparents interviewed by the Tribune — said she doesn't regret taking the children in.
"Every choice I made was my choice and I would do it again," said Kowalski, who lives in Mount Prospect. "I believed they didn't deserve any less than my full attention. In hindsight, I could have taken better care of myself so I could be better for them. But you live and you learn and sometimes you learn when it's too late."
In March, after eight years, she decided to turn over custody of the children to their father, her son-in-law.
Without the kids, Kowalski says, she is paying more attention to her health.
"I'm living and eating differently now," she said. "If they were living here, I wouldn't be doing that because I always put the kids first. Now I'm first."
Many grandparents living on a fixed income can't afford health care for themselves because they spend what they have on their grandchildren, McKoy said. This is especially true for African-Americans and Latinos, who tend to have lower incomes to start with.
McKoy said some of her grandparent-patients ask for less expensive medications because they can't afford the ones she would usually prescribe.
Resources are available to help, said Sarah Stein, manager of community programs at AgeOptions, a nonprofit Area Agency on Aging. AgeOptions and other agencies offer services to support older adults raising children, including counseling, support groups, resource referrals, limited financial assistance, and help with legal matters such as guardianship and adoption.
Despite the challenges, most grandparents feel a sense of reward raising their grandchildren and report high levels of satisfaction for keeping the family together, said Gleeson, who has conducted research on grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.
And most studies report that the children do well socially, academically and in other ways, he said.
Maxey, who lives in south suburban Dolton, said families must do whatever they can to stick together and support each other.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be raising my grandchildren," she said. "(But) what else would I do? They are here and I love them. They are truly a blessing."