Grandparents are becoming caretakers to a new generation

Karen Kane

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Their stories are as varied as the children they tend: Death claimed a daughter; drugs claimed a son; crushing financial circumstances pushed the grandchildren's parents into long-distance jobs.

The details change, but the end result is the same: More and more grandparents are finding themselves raising a second set of children at a time of life when conventional expectations ranged from languid days in a rocking chair to more rounds on the golf course.

"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," said Mary Lou Wetzel of South Fayette, Pa., who has been raising her grandsons, ages 14 and 16, since the younger one was 8 weeks old. "I love those boys like crazy, but this is hard on everyone, including them," she said.

Lingering problems from a high school car accident left her daughter unable to care for the kids, who have an absent father who is physically disabled. "When we initially took the boys, we thought it was temporary. But it didn't turn out that way." Now, at 66, Wetzel and her husband, Lee, 72, are responsible for another set of children.

The challenges range from financial to emotional, Wetzel said.

"You can never imagine everything that you'll have to confront, from trying to get health insurance to dealing with the teary eyes because there's a school activity going on that involves moms and dads," she said.

Amy Goyer, an Arizona-based multigenerational and family issues expert with AARP -- the nation's largest organization for senior citizens -- said the Wetzels represent a growing demographic, a demographic: "grandfamilies."

According to grandfactsheets.org, an Internet site overseen by Goyer and produced by a partnership of various nonprofit stakeholders that include AARP, the Children's Defense Fund and Generations United, 5.8 million children are living in grandparents' homes in the United States.

More than 2.5 million grandparents have responsibility for these children -- 1 million of whom are in homes where neither parent is present.

"We certainly see this as an increasing trend. The issues driving people to be in this situation range from substance abuse to military deployment to divorce to death to mental illness to the economy. And those drivers aren't going away," Goyer said.

The top challenges that are particular to grandfamilies are financial, legal, health, housing and education, with financial and legal claiming the top two spots that concern grandparents.

The financial concerns involve balancing limited incomes -- sometimes incomes that are based on fixed resources such as pensions -- against the costs of private insurance, school supplies and basic needs.

The legal issues can be sticky, too, Goyer said. Securing guardianship via the foster care system, for example, entails putting the children in the control of the state. 

Goyer said research consistently bears out that the single greatest way to help grandfamilies is to inform them about local resources.

That's exactly what Sister Georgine Scarpino thought when she secured approval in 2007 from the Sisters of Mercy to create a new ministry for grandparents in the Pittsburgh area -- one that led to other regional support groups.

Scarpino recounted a story of a man who called seeking help after the death of his daughter. "He found himself needing to take care of his two small grandchildren. He left his job to take care of them and he needed services. When I got back to him, I found out he had had a nervous breakdown and his brother had the children," she said.

She said she has seen time and again that grandparents who step into the role of parent for a second time find that they don't know how to access the social service system they often need so acutely. 

"One person needs to know how the school district works -- they're so different today than they were when they were raising their own children. Someone else needs medical insurance. Someone else needs someone to talk to because they feel that they failed in raising their own children and they're afraid they won't do a good job with these kids. The cases are individual, but there's a lot of commonalities: financial, legal, medical, school," she said.

(Contact reporter Karen Kane at kkane@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

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