Guiding grandparents in raising grandchildren Organization to offer support to '2nd shift'

September 15, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Dora Dailey took on the role of a mother again in her 50s.

Her son and daughter are grown, but the 59-year-old woman rises at 7 every morning in her Laurel home to cook breakfast for her 7- and 4-year-old granddaughters. She brushes their hair, chooses their outfits and watches them climb on the school bus.

Despite her chronic diabetes and high blood pressure, Dailey spends the afternoon caring for a third granddaughter, a pre-schooler who will be 2 next month.

She is a charter member of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a new group designed to give Howard County grandparents who find themselves re-experiencing the stresses of parenthood the support they haven't found elsewhere and to lessen the demands on their emotions and pocketbooks.

"I don't feel I've missed out," Dailey says about what she thought would be her relaxed retirement years. But she admits that helping her son raise three little girls in the '90s is sometimes a struggle.

Dailey is a member of a growing group. Although the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in Howard County is not available, national statistics indicate an increase. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 4 million children were living with their grandparents in 1996, up from 3.3 million in 1991.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is the creation of Ellen Willinghan, owner of Aging Resources Inc., a geriatric care provider, and a Howard County grandmother who asked to remain anonymous because of a legal battle for custody of her grandson. The pair agreed that a monthly forum was needed for these "second shift" parents, who hadn't diapered, dressed or disciplined children in years and lacked a peer group.

Willinghan says the new group, which is being organized by the county's Department of Citizens' Services, has heard from about a dozen grandparents, with others calling every day.

"It started out as a slow trickle, but we've been getting more and more," she says, adding that she hopes 25 to 30 grandparents will attend the first meeting at the East Columbia Library Oct. 25.

Many of the social ills prompting people to assume custody of their grandchildren -- substance abuse, child abuse, neglect or homelessness -- are not usually associated with Howard County.

But Willinghan said the interest in a group for grandparent-headed households is proof that these problems have reached the area.

"People move out to Howard County thinking they're removing their kids from drug problems, and they aren't because it's everywhere," she says.

When drugs or poverty force parents to relinquish custody of their children, grandparents who step in may be too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help, she says.

"If there's an illness or death, it's OK in those circumstances," Willinghan says. "But if it's an addiction or teen pregnancy or something people look down on, then the grandparents feel they've failed."

Virginia, a 57-year-old grandmother who works at a school in Howard County, feels this guilt over her son's substance abuse problem. She has had to quit her job several times to raise her son's 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.

"When I have them here, I feel high, happy, up, because I know they're OK," says Virginia, who asked that her last name not be used. "When they're not here, that's when I worry."

Both Virginia and Dailey say that they hope Grandparents Raising Grandchildren will not only provide emotional support but also help in locating financial assistance.

Dailey said that after buying clothing and food for the three girls, she doesn't have much money for the piano and gymnastics lessons she would like her granddaughters to take. Virginia would like to stay at home with her grandchildren, but she is divorced, and not working would make paying the bills a struggle.

These predicaments are typical of grandparents raising children and illustrate the need for a support group, according to Dot Keczmerski, a mental health coordinator with the county Office on Aging. Many grandparents are retired with fixed incomes and must turn to public assistance for the first time in their lives; others don't ask for help and drain their savings.

Beyond financial trouble, grandparents also face bureaucratic roadblocks: Visiting a doctor or enrolling in school is a challenge for grandparents without official custody or guardianship.

"They have difficulty receiving access to resources. They aren't shown the same openness that's shown to natural parents," Keczmerski says. "They aren't familiar with the system and are kind of out of the loop."

Both Dailey and Virginia say caring for their grandchildren is fulfilling despite these strains.

"I love to have them around," Dailey says. "These kids are a lot of help."

Her granddaughters remind her to take her insulin and blood pressure medication, suggest remedies for her arthritis and always tell her to pray. She hopes Grandparents Raising Grandchildren can improve the little girls' lives.

And Virginia believes the group may be able to help her obtain custody of her grandchildren.

"I don't have a lot of money, but I do have a lot of love," Virginia says. "That's what I can give."

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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