LOS ANGELES . — LOS ANGELES -- AUDREY AND TONY EVERTS always imagined middle age would be a time for relaxing and traveling, a time for themselves after their three sons had married and left home.
But, at 49, Audrey Everts' days are filled with PTA meetings, bedtime stories and taking care of scraped knees. The Evertses are helping to raise their 6-year-old granddaughter Ashley while her father, who is divorced, works.
"It's something I never expected," said Audrey Everts of Thousand Oaks, Calif. "But she's my granddaughter. There was really no choice. I thought I was done with this 15 years ago."
More and more older Americans who thought their child-rearing years were behind them are finding themselves in a parenting role again.
The 1990 U.S. Census shows that about 3.2 million children -- 40 percent more than 10 years ago -- are now living with their grandparents.
Experts say more grandparents are assuming parental responsibilities because parents are unable to care for their children due to drug and alcohol abuse, problems with divorce and increasing domestic violence.
The increase in the number of grandparents raising their children's children has become an epidemic, said Sylvie de Toledo, a Long Beach licensed clinical social worker and founder of Grandparents As Parents support group.
"People who expected to enjoy their retirement years are having to take on their children's responsibility. 'Grand' has been basically taken out of grandparenting," she said.
These grandparents/parents are now having to realign their lifestyles to include their grandchildren. Often, grandparents worry about clothing and feeding the youngster, what kind of discipline to use and many other long-forgotten aspects of child rearing.
But it's not a completely negative experience, experts say. Children can benefit from being raised by their grandparents, who may exhibit more patience, experience and love, said Arthur Kornhaber, a Cohasset, Mass., child psychologist and author of several books on grandparenting.
"They've been parents before," said Mr. Kornhaber during a recent telephone interview. "They know what's good and bad. They know what works and doesn't."
Mr. Kornhaber also has found that children raised by grandparents are less neurotic because there are fewer pressures placed on them, he said.
"They aren't forced to try and become the best this or that," he said. "Grandparents only give them unconditional love and are not judgmental."
Grandma and Grandpa are mellow caretakers, said Sunie Levin, founder of Grandparents' Little Dividends, a national organization for grandparents. They are good teachers, don't panic in a crisis and take time to explain things.
"Kids learn about old-fashioned standards and virtues," Ms. Levin said in a telephone interview from Prairie Village, Kan. "It's something busy modern parents don't have time to do. Being a grandparent is like nature is giving you another chance not to goof."
But the transition of having little ones in the house full-time can be difficult for grandparents, said Barbara Kirkland, founder of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a non-profit nationwide support organization based in Colleyville, Texas.
Pensions, Social Security and savings -- money to be used for retirement -- are being used to raise their grandchildren, she said.
Grandparents also have to deal with legal issues. Few have custody of their grandchild, and they often live in fear that the parent will resurface and take the child back, Ms. Kirkland said.
Those who do have custody worry about the child's mother or father challenging their parental rights, Ms. Kirkland said.
"But the really sad truth for a lot of these grandparents is realizing that their own children aren't performing their responsibilities," Ms. Kirkland added.
The burden is heavy for Elaine and Don Sands. The Los Angeles couple have been taking care of their grandchild Victoria off and on since her birth three years ago.
The child, whose father is unknown, was born in prison to the Sands' daughter, who was convicted of burglary and shoplifting.
"We finally got custody of [Victoria] a year ago," said Elaine Sands, 56. "At our age, it would be best for the little one to be with her mother, but there is just no way right now."
The Sands' daughter recently was released from prison, but has not returned home to claim her daughter, they said.
"I am disappointed in my daughter and hurt," Ms. Sands said. "At first, we went through a lot of guilty feelings. We blamed ourselves for what happened. But one day we decided we had done our best. Maybe it wasn't good enough, but it was our best."
She hopes, however, to bring up Victoria differently.
"I don't know what happened with Victoria's mother," she said. "I don't know what I did differently. But I know I will try to spend more time with Victoria -- and show her that we love her."
Ms. Sands said her husband, Don, 64, a printer, was planning to retire in two years, but now must wait.
"He likes to joke around and say he's going to have to keep working until he's 90," Ms. Sands said.
Victoria is a robust, healthy child, her grandmother said.
"It's hard keeping up with her," said Ms. Sands, who has two other daughters and eight other grandchildren. "She has a lot of energy. We have to child-proof the house again."
Where to write
If you are a grandparent raising a grandchild and want more information on where to get help, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to:
* Grandparents As Parents, 1150 E. Fourth St., Suite 221, Long Beach, Calif. 90802.
* Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, P.O. Box 104, Colleyville, Texas 76034.
* Foundation for Grandparenting, P.O. Box 326, Cohasset, Mass. 02025.