Aging Well: When grandparenting turns into parenting
July 23, 2007
Many people look forward to the joys of grandparenting: Cuddling, ice cream cones, walks to the playground and maybe babysitting before sending the little ones back home to their parents.
Facing difficult or tragic circumstances involving their children, however, more and more grandparents are foregoing the traditional grandparent role in order to provide full-time care and loving homes to their grandchildren. In the process, they often contend with financial strain, children’s emotional problems, legal hurdles and other unforeseeable challenges that likely weren’t part of their parenting experience the first time around.
Linda and Phil Pinnt of Craig, both 58, became legal guardians of their grandson, Ty, four years ago when he was two. Their daughter, Ty’s mother, was incarcerated after making “bad decisions” during a troubled marriage to Ty’s father. Ty might have ended up in foster care had the Pinnts not taken him in.
“It took us a while to decide,” Linda Pinnt said. “We had to think about it, study it and pray about it for about two months before we pursued it.”
“When it came down to what was best for Ty, we figured we were the best thing for Ty.”
The Pinnts knew their lives would change. They expected they would have to put off retirement and would have little free time as they tended to Ty’s many needs.
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What they didn’t anticipate was that Phil would get injured and no longer be able to work as an electrician, or that Ty would have emotional trauma that caused him to have violent temper tantrums and to hurt himself.
“It did surprise me with Ty being as young as he was at two that he had the issues that he did,” Linda said.
The Pinnts have worked through Ty’s emotional issues with counseling and are managing financially with Phil’s disability payments and Linda’s full time job as billing accounts manager for the Visiting Nurse Association. Like many grandfamilies, however, they have faced these and other challenges with little support or resources.
“You just take it one step at a time,” Linda Pinnt said.
On the rise
Nationally, 4.5 million children (about 6 percent of children 17 and younger) were living with grandparents in 2000 – a 30 percent increase from 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than half of those children did not have a parent present in the home, while another 1.5 million children were being cared for by other relatives including aunts, uncles, siblings and great-grandparents.
Matt Harris, caseworker supervisor with the Moffat County Social Services department, said his staff has seen a steady increase in cases involving grandparents taking responsibility for grandchildren. That parallels a recent spike in the number of children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect often related to parents’ methamphetamine use, he said.
In addition to drug or alcohol abuse, parents’ death or injury, mental problems and military deployment are among other circumstances leaving children in need of stable homes.
Financial, other hurdles
Whatever the situation, grandparents often must deal with children’s feelings of abandonment and other emotional issues while contending with their own sense of loss or grief relating to their child’s inability to parent, said Maggie Biscarr, a consultant with the AARP’s grandparenting program.
Caregivers’ social lives also are turned upside down. They have less time to spend with friends and may feel out of place among younger parents at school and other functions.
Financial strain is among the biggest challenges facing grandfamilies, who are more likely to live in poverty and lack health insurance than parent-headed households, according to Generations United, an organization promoting intergenerational programs and policies.
Adequate housing, the process of obtaining a legal relationship with grandchildren, grandparents’ health problems, healthcare and childcare are among financial demands that can push grandfamilies into financial crisis.
Only about 1/20th of children being raised solely by grandparents or other relatives are in foster care in the formal child welfare system, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
That means the vast majority of caregivers rely on child support or hope to qualify for public health and other programs for children or grandfamilies.
In the Pinnts case, the court granted child support from each of Ty’s parents but, other than making crafts and jewelry for Linda to sell, Ty’s mother has been unable to fulfill her obligation from prison. Ty’s largely-absentee father has made only one payment in more than four years, and the Pinnts also have not qualified for financial assistance programs.
Finding and accessing these programs can be a big hurdle for grandparents raising grandchildren, Biscarr said.
“Because there is such a range of need for these families, they may not know how or where to reach out for help,” she said.
Some assistance is based on families’ income. Other programs, such as Colorado Works, which provides “child grants” of $99 per month per child, are based only on the child’s income or the amount of child support they are receiving.
The AARP has created the Benefits QuickLINK (www.aarp.org/quicklink) to better help grandparents navigate programs that might help with children’s healthcare and other expenses. After grandparents enter information about their family, the user-friendly site shows contact information and any applications for programs families may be eligible for.
The list of challenges facing grandparents and relatives raising kin may be long, but their determination and sacrifice is a testament to the love and commitment of family, Biscarr said.
“In most cases, children know their grandparents or relative caregiver, and, since they are already going through some kind of trauma, having that connection with family that know and love them is really important,” she said.
As for the Pinnts, they are taking the daily demands of grandparenting in stride while proudly watching Ty, who loves sports, animals and doing anything his grandparents do, grow into a healthy and happy little boy.
They also look forward to when Ty’s mom, who corresponds with him regularly, will be able to return home and be a bigger part of his life.
“If we had to do it all over again, we would,” Linda said.
For information and resources about grandfamilies or relatives raising kin, contact the AARP’s grandparenting center, http://www.aarp.org/families/grandparents/ or (888) 687-2277 or Generations United, http://www.gu.org or (202) 289-3979.
Tamera Manzanares can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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