When grandparents become mom and dad By Mary M. Murphey
Retirement is supposed to be relaxing trips, card clubs, cruises and schedule-free afternoons. But Diane and Heinrich Raff's retirement experience is quite the opposite.
They're spending their golden years checking homework assignments, changing diapers, preparing for spelling tests, signing field-trip permission slips, attending parent-teacher conferences and hugging their five grandsons, whom they are raising.
Diane Raff's 39-year-old son, David, died of bronchopneumonia on Jan. 2, 2002 while he and his sons were visiting the Raffs for the holidays. The Raffs applied for and received custody of the five boys.
David had full custody of his sons since August 2001, and the boys' mother and maternal grandparents were only slightly involved in their lives. The boys' mother currently lives in a Chicago homeless shelter and recently gave birth to another son.
Diane Raff, 64, and her husband, Heinrich, 67, were just one year into retirement from V&S Grinding in Wheeling when they were unexpectedly shuttled back to parenthood.
"How can you not do it?" Diane Raff asks, referring to raising her grandsons. "This is their life."
Their cozy North Side home provides a snug fit for this seven-member family with their two cats and one dog, but the Raff household is as typical as any in their neighborhood.
Each morning the Raffs usher the three oldest boys-Adam, 13, Alex, 12, and Andy, 8-out the door for school. Then they prepare the 3½-year-old twins, Eric and Ryan, for their half-day of school. By early afternoon, the youngest two are back and busy.
Eric and Ryan were born prematurely and suffered neglect and abuse before they were placed in their father's custody, so although they are almost 4 years old, they function as 1-year-olds. Neither boy talks or can fully walk by himself.
Lean on me The Raffs, married 28 years, are two of the 103,717 grandparents in Illinois who find themselves once again navigating the turbulent waters of parenthood. According to a study released by the American Association of Retired Persons in 2003, 4.5 million children are living in grandparent-headed households. The study, "Lean on Me: Support and Minority Outreach for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren," was based on the 2000 Census and independent research by AARP.
Susan Ochwat and Christie Range, social workers with the Palliative CareCenter & Hospice of the North Shore, a nonprofit community healthcare agency, say a growing number of grandparents attend the grief-counseling session the women run for people who have lost children.
Range, Ochwat and the Illinois Department of Aging say many factors contribute to the growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren. They include the high divorce rate, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of at least one parent, HIV/AIDS, unemployment, teen pregnancy, poverty, the rise in cancer and welfare reform.
But raising grandchildren can be tough. A study in the November 2003 issue of the American Journal of Public Health says women who care for grandchildren at least nine hours a week have a 55 percent increased risk of heart attack. In addition, the AARP study details how the stress of parenting at a later age takes a heavier toll the second time around. On top of having to cope with the death, incarceration, divorce or inability of their own child to act as a parent, grandparents must help their grandchildren deal with the painful transition.
"The minute [grandparents] take the children, they stop serving the role of grandparent," says Jean Xoubi, program supervisor of the Older Caregiver Project at Chicago-based Metropolitan Family Services. This shift in the family unit cheats both grandchildren and grandparents out of a relationship.
The generation gap between grandparents and grandchildren can be another obstacle to forming a cohesive new family. "Just by virtue of the issues kids are dealing with today, particularly with peer pressure, this is parenting in a new world," says Tonya Mitchell, public information officer at the Chicago Department on Aging.
It's a strain AARP's "Lean on Me" study also notes that raising grandchildren puts a financial strain on grandparents. Covering costs for school, childcare and general living expenses can stretch grandparents' pocketbooks thin, especially if they are living on limited retirement income.
The 1996 Child Only Grant under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program offers financial assistance to families caring for children. TANF offers temporary cash and medical assistance for up to 60 consecutive months. Grandparents raising their grandchildren are eligible and in Illinois can apply for them through the Department of Human Services at (800) 252-8635.
AARP's Grandparent Study 2002 Report found that 63 percent of grandparents who are raising grandchildren are retired, but 13 percent leave retirement for jobs to make ends meet.
You need support Another source of stress is the legal problems for those who have physical, but not legal, custody of their grandchildren. Government assistance, medical coverage, childcare and even participation in some school activities are tricky to navigate when grandparents are not legal guardians of their grandchildren.
"Lean on Me" states that grandparents raising their grandchildren suffer social isolation from their peers, the majority of whom are enjoying their retirement without children.
Diane Raff says most people do not understand why she and her husband chose to raise their grandsons, but it was a fairly obvious decision to them.
The Raffs do not spend as much time with their retired friends as they once did. They are at a different place in life now; they have found a support network in each other.
Raff says parenting her five grandsons keeps her and her husband young. "We do things we wouldn't do as retired people," she says, such as camping and playing sports.
Grandchildren suffer from these same stress issues, but in a different way. They have to adjust to grandparents now being their parents. Grandchildren also have to deal with knowing that their lives are different from that of their peers, and the difference is visible. Their peers see their grandparents at the parent-teacher conferences, at the Little League games and at the doctor's office instead of their parents.
The generational divide is a hefty challenge to overcome, as well. Many grandchildren have a difficult time relating to their grandparents the way they could with someone 30 years younger.
Despite the adjustments they have had to make, Diane and Heinrich Raff are pleased with their life.
"It's all working out," Diane Raff says. "We're doing this because we love [them]. This is the whole secret. There's no magic formula, no nothing.
Resources There are countless resource centers, support groups and counseling opportunities in the Chicago area for grandparents raising grandchildren. The following are just a handful of such organizations aimed at helping grandparents and families through painful times of loss and transition.
The Palliative CareCenter & Hospice of the North Shore (847) 467-7423 www.carecenter.org Metropolitan Family Services (773) 884-3310 www.metrofamily.org
Council for Jewish Elderly (773) 508-1000 www.cje.net
AARP of Illinois (312) 458-3600 www.aarp.org/il
GRANDFamilies Program of Chicago (773) 651-8800
Guardian Grandparents Support Group Mercy Hospital (312) 567-2295
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