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Grandfamilies: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

A growing number of senior citizens are caring for their children's children. How are they coping?
By: Katy Abel

Grandfamilies: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

So much for spoiling them rotten, then sending them home to their parents. Grandparenting is not what it used to be. At a time when most expect to enjoy the fruit of their life's labor, growing numbers of senior citizens find they are saddled with a burden they never expected to bear: caring for their own children's children.

Some facts:

  • According to a 2000 U.S. Census Bureau report, 2.4 million grandparents had primary responsibility for their coresident grandchildren younger than 18.
  • Among grandparent caregivers, 39 percent had cared for their grandchildren for 5 or more years.
  • Black children were more likely to be raised by grandparents than white children or Hispanic children.
  • Reasons vary, but by far the most common reason grandparents assume custody is that their own children have a drug problem.

    Although many speak fondly of the ways in which their grandchildren enrich their lives, the demands of parenting late in life often come on top of mounting health problems and financial pressures. Those living on fixed incomes must absorb the additional expense of caring for kids with little or no help from the state.

    Advice for Those Caring for Grandchildren

  • Get prompt legal advice about custody and financial planning. Expect that you may have to consult with more than one attorney.
  • Look for a "grandparents as parents" support group. Check with local hospitals and social service agencies to find meeting times.
  • Don't forget to take care of yourself. Ask a friend or relative to baby-sit so you can steal away to the movies or cards at a neighbor's.
  • Keep open communication with your own child, if possible. At some point, the issues that led him or her to surrender custody may be resolved. The prospect of regaining custody may be a motivator for those struggling with drug or financial problems. If seeing a parent is upsetting to children, try to keep in touch through cards, the phone, or email.

    "We've Let Go of Our Dreams": Barbara's Story
    Barbara G. and her husband Joe thought they'd be living in a condo in Florida by now. Today, the Massachusetts couple is bound by love and duty to stay put, caring for their daughter's daughters, nine-year-old Ashley and four-year-old Alexir.

    "By the time we get to Florida we'll probably be in wheelchairs," Barbara says wryly. "We can no longer jump on a plane and go down there, or go to Aruba in February the way we used to. We have a boat, and we used to go down on a Thursday, head out and not come back till Sunday. Now we can't do that with Alexir. It's not fair to her to be in such a small space."

    Barbara, in her 50's, has had temporary legal custody of the two girls for the past year, but has had to rescue the children from their drug-addicted mother periodically since their birth.

    "She's a real mess," says Barbara of her daughter. "I'm absolutely resentful of her for what she's done. I could kill her."

    Despite her anger, Barbara and Joe have focused all of their energies on the children and will seek permanent custody of them in May. Their days are full; Barbara cleans houses and Joe does occaisional landscaping work while the kids are in school. Afternoons are spent shuttling them to and from activities.

    "It's exhausting," Barbara admits. "I have to drive Alexir to school and pick her up. Tomorrow Ashley has homework club until four, but we can't pick up Alexir until five, and then Ashley has to be back at school by six because she's in a play. And I have to get them dinner."

    Taking custody of Ashley and Alexir has had a ripple effect throughout the family. Barbara says her other children resent the attention she showers on the girls, feeling it comes at the expense of their own kids. There is a sense of history repeating itself. Barbara's 76-year-old mother, who raised 14 of her own children, continues to care for a 13-year-old grandchild, though she is barely able to live unassisted herself anymore.

    Despite the familial pressure, Barbara enjoys curling Alexir's hair or shopping for Easter dresses with Ashley. She has found a few "survival strategies": she rises at six each morning to have an hour of peace and quiet to herself, and she makes time for weekly card games with her friends.

    "Right now, I think I can give them as much as I gave my own," she reflects, thinking of her own four children. "But seven years from now when Ashley's 14, I doubt I'm going to be able to stay awake until she comes in from a friend's house. That scares me. But we're in this for the long run."

    The Lows and the Highs
    Bill Hicks and his wife Sharon are raising their 11-year-old granddaughter, Brittany. How are they facing the challenge of grandparent involvement in education? "I find myself studying more, using reference books I haven't used in years," says Hicks. "I spend a lot more time at her school than I did the first time around, trying to make sure I understand what the teachers expect."

    Hicks says that when he first met Brittany's teachers, they were a little shocked to see a man in his 50s. Since then, things have gone very well. He tries to talk with Brittany's teacher at least once a month. "They seem to be a little surprised that we're so actively involved — but they sure do like it!"

    Hicks admits many other grandparents have found it more difficult to get involved at school. "In most states, grandparents who are raising grandchildren without a legal custodial agreement cannot even enroll them in school," says Renee Woodworth, project coordinator for the AARP's Grandparent Information Center. Often their only remedy is to take their own children to court and sue for custody.

    Grandparents cope with far more than the usual demands of parenthood. "It has not been easy. Sometimes we feel a little bitter because our anticipated freedom has been taken away." But when asked if he and his wife would open their home to Brittany again, he answered: "Positively, yes! Brittany has been a shining light in our lives. She has forced us to stay young at heart. And that's not such a bad thing to happen."

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