Trading Retirement Dreams for a Second Round of Parenthood

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls September 15, 2015 07:31

Sonny Tome, 79, and his wife are raising grandson Rustin

To protect families’ privacy, pseudonyms are used for all grandparents interviewed here except the Tomes, shown in photo at left. For a list of helpful resources for grandparents raising grandchildren, click here.

Raising an 11-year-old girl whose parents lost custody due to drugs is not how Naomi, 74, envisioned her retirement years.

“It’s very, very hard,” the Sonora woman says of this second round of parenthood. “It’s kind of like being pregnant – unless you’ve gone through it, you don’t know how difficult it is.”

Nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, she is one of about 2.4 million grandparents raising 4.9 million of their grandchildren – 7 percent of all children in the country, and an increase of 19 percent over the past decade.

In California, more than 300,000 grandparents are caring for more than 800,000 grandchildren, estimates a consortium including the American Association of Retired Persons.

The 2010 Census showed that grandparents were raising grandchildren in 1,010 of 22,045 households in Tuolumne County, 997 of 19,184 in Calaveras County and 713 of 14,262 in Amador County.

The number of grandparents – ranging in age from their 40s to their 80s – raising grandchildren in the Mother Lode has been steadily rising, says JoAnn Pechota, a licensed clinical social worker who guides the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group in Tuolumne County.

“It’s a growing thing, and it isn’t often short-term,” Pechota says.

“It’s an upward trend,” agrees Tracey Sawyer, assistant director of the Area 12 Agency on Aging, which administers the support group.

The numbers are even larger than those on the official record, says Sawyer, because many families don’t want to become involved in “the system” – family courts, child welfare agencies and foster care programs.

Often, Pechota says, broken families have dealt with years of legal issues, and grandparents – whether they’re acting as guardians or have adopted their grandchildren – have experienced major changes in their roles and lifestyles.

“It blurs the grandparent and parent role,” Pechota says. “Grandparents lose their role as grandparents – they have to be the parents now – and their ability to retire. They can also lose a lot of friends.”

Mary Ann Manges, coordinator of The Grandparent Café support group in Amador County, knows at least one member of her group who misses typical retirement activities.

“All her friends are going on cruises and she says, ‘My cruise is a float down the Sutter Creek with my grandchildren.’ The reality of retirement is different from what they probably imagined.”

Another challenge for grandparents is balancing the dynamics of broken families.

Younger children in particular can struggle with being raised by a grandparent, says Arleen Garland, outreach specialist and a facilitator of The Grandparent Project in Calaveras County (see “Resources for Grandparents” on FAN’s Resource HQ page).

“No matter how dysfunctional they were, most kids still love their parents and want to go back with them,” Garland says.

The financial and emotional tolls are heavy. A study of all 58 California counties by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research puts the annual cost of raising one grandchild at roughly $5,400 in Tuolumne County, $5,300 in Calaveras County and $5,600 in Amador County. Costs rise, of course, with each additional grandchild.

Such costs “can create hardships for both caregiver and child alike,” the study notes. Many grandparent caregivers are on fixed incomes, yet because they are above the federal poverty line ($11,770 for a one-person household, $15,093 for two), they may not quality for aid programs like food stamps.

Therese May, coordinator of The Grandparent Project, believes support groups can help grandparents find programs for which they do qualify and also help navigate the complexities of myriad federal, state and county aid systems.

“It really is on a family-by-family basis,” May says.

For instance, she explains, whether the grandparents are guardians, have adopted the child or have no legal custody may affect the type of programs for which families are eligible.

Why do so many grandparents end up raising their grandchildren? Fractures in the traditional family structure are often responsible, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. These include parental substance abuse, abuse and neglect, incarceration, HIV/AIDS, mental or physical illness, teen pregnancy, abandonment, divorce and death.

“Most of the people who come to our group have difficult life problems,” Pechota says. “It’s often a crisis. It becomes a difficult thing for everybody. If everything were OK, they wouldn’t need help.”

calaveras grandparent image from therese may raising gkids

Don and Fran Wylie of Murphys with granddaughter Stella, 3, at an ice cream social put on by The Grandparent Project

Support groups provide that help.

“They support other people and get support themselves,” says Pechota of her group’s members. “It’s been a great program,  it’s very low-key and not scary.”

“They just sit and listen to each other and just share,” Manges says of her Amador group.

The groups also offer a wealth of information on providing basic needs for grandchildren (nutrition, schooling, transportation), acquiring financial aid, obtaining counseling and therapy, navigating the legal system, working through the adoption process and maintaining extended family relationships in difficult circumstances.

Those resources have been helpful to Jane, a 70-year-old Sonora grandmother who, with her husband, is raising a 12-year-old granddaughter. The child’s parents split up, and her father was jailed after he was granted custody.

Jane says most grandparents in the Tuolumne County support group seek companionship and benefit from knowing they are not alone. “We can help each other with our experiences. It helps immensely.”

Her own experience has been difficult, yet rewarding.

“Now I have to be the mom instead of the grandma,” she says. “Before, it was all fun and games. But she’s a sweet kid, and she’s going good in school.”

Jane says Pechota practices tough love in the support group when necessary. “She gets right up in your face sometimes and says things like, ‘You have the right to take charge of the kid.’ ”

While missing out on her golden years “a bit,” Jane makes time for herself by going with her sister to an occasional San Francisco Giants game.

Naomi, the grandmother raising her 11-year-old granddaughter, is single.

She says support-group members try to keep each other grounded in the knowledge that “these kids didn’t do anything wrong … not a bit of this is the child’s fault. It’s hard, but I’d do it again in a nanosecond.”

Garland has high praise for grandparents who take on this weighty responsibility. “They truly are heroes, and you have to give them credit for being so courageous,” she says. “They’re willing to sacrifice and give up some of the dreams they might have had for retirement.”


Sonny Tome shoots hoops with his grandson

Two Calaveras grandparents shared their perspectives.

“My biggest concern for the children is not having healthy relationships with their parents and that they may be looking for someone or something else, like drugs or a life of crime, to fill the hole in their hearts,” says Margaret, 63, who is raising a 13-year-old granddaughter.

Another woman points to the positives of parenthood revisited.

“Raising a grandchild is an opportunity to raise another child, but with the wisdom you may not have had with your own kids,” says Eunice, 67, who is raising her 14-year-old grandson.

“You now have the gift of experience, and maybe a little more detachment – the ability to worry less, talk less, observe more, laugh more.  Don’t waste the opportunity and the chance to enjoy the experience.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls September 15, 2015 07:31
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