Gail Lauderbaugh never dreamed she'd spend her golden years raising children.
But for the past 10 years, Lauderbaugh has raised three grandchildren -- 15-year-old Kevin, 12-year-old Stephanie and 11-year-old Nikki.
Lauderbaugh, 71, and her husband, Larry, 73, took their three grandchildren into their Bemidji home after their daughter-in-law was murdered in 2000. The couple's son never took responsibility for the children, so the duty fell to them. For a senior citizen, she said, parenting can be exhausting.
"It's not the same as raising your own kids," she said. "They need younger people involved in their lives, more than just me and grandpa."
The Lauderbaughs have plenty of company. Grandparents are raising nearly 3 million children in the United States, according to census data. That's up 8 percent over the past decade, largely because of the recession.
Lauderbaugh said the generational differences are a challenge. Self-described "computer illiterates," she and her husband sometimes struggle to help the children with homework. She also said the couple didn't anticipate raising kids when they planned for retirement, so it's put a strain on their budget.
The couple doesn't have many bills. They rely on Social Security and some child support from their son. They also receive medical benefits through Beltrami County and a couple hundred dollars a month in food stamps.
"We're squeaking, but we're okay," Lauderbaugh said. "It's hard, but you just kind of play it by ear and you hope that you raise them to be really decent, good people."
More than 22,000 Minnesota grandparents were the primary caregivers for their grandchildren in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. That's up from around 18,000 a decade ago.
The number one reason children end up with grandparents is that their parents abuse drugs or alcohol, said Bonnie DeVore, coordinator of Relatives As Parents, a program that provides help for grandparents struggling with new child rearing duties.
But there are lots of other reasons, said DeVore, who runs an office that covers northwest Minnesota.
"Sometimes it's just the parents aren't ready to parent," she said. "Maybe they're very, very young. Sometimes there's mental health issues involved. Sometimes it's financial. Sometimes it's incarceration. Everybody's story is very different."
Relatives As Parents, available in every Minnesota county, is one of only a few programs for grandparents in the country. It helps grandparents navigate legal questions about custody or guardianship and refers them to health, education and other services. There are dozens of support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren throughout the state.
DeVore said she thinks the numbers of grandparents raising grandchildren are underestimated.
"We know that there's a lot more out there than what we're seeing, but we're seeing more and more," she said. "We see grandparents mostly, but we also see great-grandparents and we also see aunts and uncles once in awhile, so it's widespread."
National census data show the rise in grandparents as caregivers jumped sharply in 2008, just after the start of the recession.
Economists say that's when job losses and foreclosures forced multiple generations back under one roof. Some grandchildren were left behind while unemployed parents moved to find work or get retrained.
Amy McDonough, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons, said the shift came at a time when many seniors saw their pension or savings in the stock market dwindle.
"They're trying to figure out how they are going to have a secure retirement," McDonough said. "They're worried about the cost of health care, and now many of them are now faced with helping their children and their grandchildren get back on their feet, too, so it really is a tough time."
Experts say the economic downturn isn't the only factor. There also has been a nationwide push to keep troubled kids out of foster homes, and instead place them with grandparents and other relatives.