Monday, July 23, 2001

More grandparents raising grandkids

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Greta Brandon gets a hug from granddaughter Deaira Brock, 3.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Fran and Mike Gordon's nest was empty for 17 years before their grandson came to live with them in 1998. Now, the Taylor Mill couple has swapped leisurely vacations to Puerto Rico for frenzied kid-friendly trips to Disney World.

        Jacqueline Spaw, a St. Bernard widow, was just getting used to life alone. She was living in an efficiency apartment when her four grandchildren came to live with her two years ago.

        Greta Brandon of East Walnut Hills never got a break. Still raising two teen-agers, she's also mother to three grandchildren, ages 5, 4 and 3. They've lived with her since they were born.

        These Tristate grandparents are among a growing number who have reared one family only to find themselves raising kids all over again.

        The latest numbers from the 2000 Census show that in the 13-county metro area, the number of grandparents living in homes with children rose 11.5 percent during the '90s. All of the grandparents might not be raising kids themselves; they might be living in homes with the children's parents, too.

Jacqueline Spaw with two of the four grandchildren who live with her.
(Yuli Wu photo)
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        Still, the numbers show that children are living with grandparents in more than 33,600 Tristate homes, nearly half of them in Hamilton County.

        Hamilton County posted the area's largest increase since 1990 — 35.6 percent — in families with grandchildren at home. Large gains also were reported in Ohio and Dearborn counties in Indiana and Campbell County in Kentucky.

        Boone County in Kentucky and Clermont and Warren counties in Ohio saw significant decreases, probably because of the growth in middle-class families there.

        David Maume, a University of Cincinnati sociologist, speculates that the increase in Hamilton County is linked to poverty. The Census Bureau reports that grandparent-led families are more likely to be poor.

        “I just don't think this is a lifestyle choice American families are increasingly choosing,” Dr. Maume said. “I just think this is more of a story about poverty.”

County numbers
        Nationally, the number of grandchildren living in their grandparents' homes has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Today, about 7.7 percent of all U.S. children — 1.4 million — are being raised by grandparents.

        “We've always had custodial grandparenting,” says Linda Dannison, who specializes in grandparenting issues and chairs the Western Michigan University Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

        “What's new are the numbers and the reasons. In the past, the reasons were death and economics. Today, it's more likely to be substance abuse.”

        Drug and alcohol abuse, death of a parent, physical or mental illness, unemployment, poverty, desertion, teen pregnancy, incarceration or divorce — all are factors in this growing phenomenon.

        Experts say that any grandparent can be thrust into the role of parent again. But grandparent caregivers tend to be women. They're more likely to be poor. And 81 percent are younger than 65, the Census Bureau says.

        In many cases, grandchildren do not come in neatly wrapped packages. Many have experienced abuse or neglect and have physical, emotional or behavioral problems, Dr. Dannison says.

        Jacqueline Spaw's grandchildren are 10, 8, 4 and 3. They are the children of her oldest daughter, who is bipolar/manic depressive and unable to care for them. Last year, the two oldest grandchildren were diagnosed as bipolar.

        “I didn't understand why one minute they were playing, and the next minute they wanted to die. It was very strange and very hard to deal with,” says the 47-year-old grandmother, who moved from her apartment into a house.

        Financial burdens loom. Ms. Spaw is unemployed and has no health insurance. Bills take almost every dollar. It breaks her heart that she can't give the children a small allowance.

        “I have worries,” she says. “I'm going to have them for another 18 years or longer because the kids need me, and I'm going to be there for them as long as I can be.”

        Grandparents often mourn the loss of their traditional role — the joy of doting on their grandchildren. That's been a difficult adjustment for Ms. Spaw.

        “I have to be the discipliner. I have to be the mother, the father, the caregiver. I can't spoil the kids.”

        Ms. Spaw copes by handling one issue at a time. “You don't know how many times I close my bedroom door at night and just pray to God, "Please help me get through another day.' Then, I cry.”

        While grandparents cling to the hope that their grandchildren can one day return to their parents, the arrangement is permanent for most.

        Greta Brandon's 22-year-old daughter had the first of her three children at age 16. “She's here, but she doesn't do much mothering to them. I do the cooking and the taking care of them,” Ms. Brandon, 43, says.

        A widow, she works part time as a receptionist at St. Francis DeSales School. Finances are tight. Just last month, she was able to get the kids medical insurance through the state. The 4-year-old has asthma and the 5-year-old needs speech therapy.

        “I'm really glad when everyone closes their eyes at night. It's like a break. I call the night time my time.”

        Many grandparents seek support groups for grandparents raising grandchildren. There's comfort in knowing they're not alone.

        One such group helps Fran Gordon deal with her conflicting emotions. Her daughter, who lives out-of-state, can't care for her 13-year-old son, Eddie, because of her failing health.

        “Sometimes, you stop and think, "Can I really do this all over again?'” the 59-year-old grandmother says.

        “You have certain feelings of anger and guilt. Anger because you want the situation to be different. I want his mother to be well so she can take care of him and raise him. I feel guilty for thinking that way because that's not the situation, and this is really what's best for him.”

        The spontaneous life she once knew is gone. Ms. Gordon, a secretary, and her 50-year-old husband, a customer service agent, now must plan everything. Still, the trials of raising a teen-ager are matched by joys in parenthood the second time around.

        “Would I have gone to a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on my own? No. But I did go last year,” she says.

        Parenthood doesn't offer many opportunities for do-overs. This is about as close as it gets.

        “I know there were lots of mistakes I made in bringing up my own children,” Ms. Gordon says, “but I have to stop and think, "Can I do this right this time without making any mistakes?

        “You can't change the past with your own kids, but you can try to change his future.”

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