Lillian Meyers was 50 years old when she and her husband became full-time parents again — this time to their two granddaughters, ages six and nine.

Stepping in

In the US, more than 5.8 million children live in grandparents’ homes, according to AARP, a nonprofit membership organisation that provides resources to families and seniors. In the UK, some 200,000 grandparents and other relatives are raising children who are unable to live with their parents, according to UK national charity Grandparents Plus.

The girls had been evicted from their home and left with a stranger by their mother. Their father — Lillian’s son — was also out of the picture, due to drug addiction. The woman who had the girls notified the authorities.

“We got a call from the police,” said Meyers, now 68, who is a financial planner with Meyers Financial in California in the US. “The girls had technically been abandoned and they wanted to talk to their grandma and grandpa and we got them. The next day I had an attorney process temporary guardianship.”

Meyers and her husband raised the girls to adulthood — not always an easy road. “When you’ve already been through it once and thought you were done, it’s a different thing to go through it again and very stressful,” Meyers said. “Especially when the kids have been traumatised.”

When you’ve already been through it once and thought you were done, it’s a different thing to go through it again.

In the US, more than 5.8 million children live in grandparents’ homes, according to AARP, a nonprofit membership organisation that provides resources to families and seniors. In the UK, some 200,000 grandparents and other relatives are raising children who are unable to live with their parents, according to UK national charity Grandparents Plus, which supports the involvement of grandparents and extended family with children.

“The most common reasons are parental drug or alcohol misuse, abuse and neglect, domestic violence, serious illness or disability or parental death,” said Sarah Wellard, director of policy and research for Grandparents Plus. “The challenges are immense.”

If you find yourself in this complicated position, here are a few survival strategies:

What it will take: You'll need patience, understanding and the fortitude to go through the parenting process a second time. You may have to cut back on work or stop working altogether. And, you'll have to rethink your finances. “This really is something that could come out of nowhere and blow up somebody’s financial plan, goals and objectives,” said Thomas Gaertner, a financial planner in Wisconsin in the US.

This really is something that could come out of nowhere and blow up somebody’s financial plan.

How long you need to prepare: Becoming a full-time parent to your grandchildren isn’t something anyone plans to do, and there’s typically very little time to prepare for it. So, seek professional help. Find an attorney who specialises in family law, a financial advisor who can help you rework your retirement plan, and your local child welfare department or department of human services who can advise you about any benefits you may be able to access.

Do it now: Get legal assistance. “Apply for custody as soon as possible,” said Betty Cornelius, founder of CanGrands National Kinship Support in Ontario, Canada. Depending on where you live, you typically need some kind of guardianship or custody of a child in order to make decisions on their behalf — such as placing them in school, taking them to the doctor, etc. Adoption may be an option but could hinder your ability to apply for certain benefits or further complicate your relationship with the children’s parents.

 

“Every case is unique and it’s vital to get good legal advice from a specialist in this field,” Wellard said.

Look into benefits. You or the child may be eligible for some financial help, depending on where you live and your particular situation. For instance, in the US, children may be eligible for a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) child-only grant, although it’s not much—in 2011, the average grant was about $8 per day for one child, and only a bit more for each additional child, according to US site Grandfamilies.org.

In the UK, you may be eligible for a Child Benefit, in which you receive £20.70 ($30.23) per week for the eldest or only child, and £13.70 ($20.01) per week for each additional child. Following that, there’s also the potential for a Guardian’s Allowance if you’re raising a child whose parents have died, although you may also be eligible if there’s one surviving parent. That’s £16.55 ($24.17) per week per child. Check with your local government agency on ageing or child welfare for benefit information.

Consult, also, with a tax professional who can help you claim the right credits, allowances and deductions for the new dependents in your household.

Get help for the grandchildren. There is never a happy reason for you to be putting your parenting hat on again. “You may be happy to be raising your grandchildren, but somebody’s hurting,” said Karen Wright, founder of US site RaisingYourGrandchildren.com and author of I Love You from the Edges: Lessons from Raising Grandchildren. “Something negative has happened to cause a grandparent to step in and take full responsibility.” That could be anything from drug addiction to mental illness to the death of one or both parents.

Find a therapist the kids can talk to, and take them there as often as necessary.

And, the kids are likely to be experiencing pain, anxiety, and depression because their parents are gone. “Often the children have emotional and behavioural difficulties because of what they experienced,” Wellard said. Find a therapist the kids can talk to, and take them there as often as necessary.

Get help for yourself. The grandchildren aren’t the only ones experiencing upheaval. “I cannot emphasise enough getting a good therapist for yourself,” Meyers said. “Small children aren’t that hard to handle and love, but when they become 13, 14, 15, they require a lot of help and you need the help, too.” A therapist or counsellor is a good place to start, but you might also consider a support group, whether it’s local or online, that understands what you’re going through.

“Groups are a wonderful source of support to talk to other grandparents who have been in a similar situation” said Amy Goyer, AARP’s grandparenting expert. Try your local agency on ageing, which may be able to point you in the right direction. Websites such as AARP’s GrandFacts or Grandparents Plus’s Advice section may also have support group info.

Expect some work changes. “Many grandparents end up quitting their jobs so they have time to care for the children,” Goyer said. Or they may be forced to find a different job, for example if their employer gives them a hard time about suddenly needing time off to attend parent-teacher conferences again. If you haven’t retired yet, you may have to move your retirement date back — and if you’ve retired, you may have to return to work to make extra money.

Do it later: Keep retirement on track. Try not to tap your retirement accounts to pay for grandchild expenses. “I really advise grandparents not to decimate their retirement savings,” Goyer said. “In the long run, that’s not going to help your grandkids, because you’re going to be dependent on them later.” You may need to make some adjustments to your timeline, but do your best to stick to your savings plan.

Try not to tap your retirement accounts to pay for grandchild expenses.

Take care of yourself. Taking the parenting reins in your 50s and 60s is harder than it is in your energy-filled 20s and 30s. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating properly and taking appropriate mental breaks. “I gained a lot of weight because of the stress,” Meyers said.

Do it smarter: Remember that you’re the parent now. “You can’t be ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’ and parent,” Meyers said. “You think, ‘I should be nicer,’ or ‘I shouldn’t be so strict.’ It’s a sticky situation because you’re in the middle: being Grandma and Grandpa on one side and the parent on the other.”

Said Meyers: “I think our two girls probably missed out on Grandma and Grandpa because we were parenting. We had to do the best we could with what we could, and that’s about all you can do.”

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