When Pat Owens' daughter dropped off her 18-month-old son at Grandma's house in 1996 and didn't return for a year, Pat's parental instincts kicked back in immediately. The enormity of the life-altering event, though, took some time to sink in.
"I thought it was temporary, that she'd come to her senses and do the right thing," the Maryland grandmother says. "I didn't want to believe a child of mine had no interest in parenting."
When her daughter reappeared 12 months later — without a single call or letter in the interim — Pat thought she had every right to deny her request to have grandson, Michael, "for just one night."
Pat thought wrong. A sheriff's knock on the door that night and the subsequent three weeks Michael spent with his mother let Pat know exactly how much she didn't know about the legal rights — or lack thereof — for grandparents raising grandkids.
"My biggest mistake was not knowing exactly what my rights were, and what I needed to do to make sure no one could take them from me," says Pat.
With the help of a lawyer, she immediately filed papers to get legal custody of her grandson. And, she is currently in the process of adopting Michael, now 11.
The emotional and legal limbo Pat found herself in is not uncommon to the 2.4 million grandparents raising grandchildren in America. Questions of custody, financial assistance, school enrollment, housing, health care, and basic mental well-being for you and your grandchild strike at lightning speed in the midst of heart-breaking circumstances (death, substance abuse, divorce). All this at a time when you may be down-shifting into an easier pace of retirement. "You will feel completely alone and overwhelmed," says Pat, "I can't deny that."
The research can't be denied, either. A recent University of Chicago study of 13,000 grandparents ages 50 to 80 showed that grandmothers who took over as primary caregivers, for grandkids whose parents were not present in the home, reported initial declines in their health. This need not be reason to fret, though. The researchers also reported that grandparents who stuck with it saw a modest improvement in their health, which suggests that the negative effect of becoming primary caretaker disappears as the arrangement continues.
Sticking with it, says Pat, is getting easier, especially compared to when she first faced a confusing and often uninformed network of social services and legal agencies. "I let myself be intimidated, and didn't ask for help," she says of a system not yet ready for the influx of grandparents caring for grandkids. "Partly because it was, in fact, not on my side, but also because grandparents often don't want to make a fuss or look like busy-bodies."
Today, thanks to busy-bodies such as Pat, that system is more educated, robust, and better connected to the specific needs of the one in 12 children under the care of grandparents. Pat co-founded Grandfamilies of America, one of a growing number of activist organizations championing grandparents' rights and providing a community for resource swapping. Recognizing the influx of boomers who are unexpectedly finding themselves in a parenting role again, AARP has partnered with state and federal agencies to put legal support in place to connect grandparents with the assistance they need... and each other.
"You have to reach out. You have to ask for help," says Pat. "So much is there now that wasn't there when this happened to me."
So what kind of support is out there? The (grand)mother lode of info is at AARP, where Maggie Biscarr of the AARP Foundation Grandparent Information Center helped us put together this care package of tips for grandparents whose primary concern changed, in an instant, from retirement — to raising a family.
Talk to an Attorney
There are multiple formal legal arrangements — kinship care via your state's foster-care system, adoption, legal guardianship, legal custody — that enable you to qualify for certain benefits and make decisions about your grandchild's life. Options vary from state to state. Visit GrandFamiliesofAmerica.com for an explanation of these types of arrangements.
Go toFindLegalHelp.org for legal help or low-cost services. Grandfamilies of America also offers access to a lawyer via its toll-free hotline.
The National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights has chapters in 40 states and keeps a list of recent rulings and child-care agencies at Grandparentsforchildren.org.
Enroll Your Grandchild in School
Here's where the legal help comes into play. In some states, you'll need legal custody to enroll your grandchild; in others, you simply need proof that the child is living with you.
And, don't let your involvement end at the dotted line. Go beyond paperwork, by talking to teachers, principals, and counselors about your family. Although her 14-year-old grandson "about threw a fit" when she showed up at school with cookies last year, grandmother Piretta Patterson says doing so put a face on her family. "I know if I show up at that school and they see and know my situation, they will call me when something happens," says Piretta, who still volunteers with the school system. "Again, you just have to say, 'This is my situation. I need your help here.'"
Know What Your House Can Handle
If you live in senior or subsidized housing and are concerned about whether children are allowed, seek legal advice. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding what constitutes a "family" and who is allowed in certain types of housing, says AARP's Biscarr.
If your current home needs more space, you may be eligible for Housing and Urban Development Home Improvement loan programs listed at Hud.gov. Generations United also has information specifically related to housing at Gu.org.
Find Out About Public Assistance
Go to AARP.org/grandparents and click on the Benefits QuickLINK box for a benefits eligibility screening that includes information about free health care (offered in most states) and Medicaid. And, don't be ashamed to ask for help, says Opal Buford, who co-founded Grandfamilies with Pat. "Doctors, lawyers — this can happen to anyone, and very few are financially prepared for it."
Take Care of Yourself, Get a Support Group
No matter how overwhelmed you feel, take time to get your head above water and see what life preservers are available. Evelyn Phillips, of Marietta, Ga., says she was so consumed by the radical change in her daily life that she didn't ask for help soon enough after her daughter left her four children, all under the age of 5, in her care in 1982. "I felt that no one else could possibly be going through the trials and tribulations that I was going through — running an art gallery and antique shop and taking care of four babies," she says. "But, when I found an online group, all of a sudden I had adults to talk to who, unlike most of my retired friends, actually could relate." Group members helped one another through legal tangles, school dramas, and the occasional "Whatcha cooking for dinner?" quandary.
A full database of support groups and services, for you and your grandkids, awaits you at AARP.org/grandparents. There you'll find state fact sheets for local support groups, legal assistance, public benefits, and state laws.
Set aside some time for yourself daily, even if it's just to take a bath, sit on your porch, play online word games, or dance around the kitchen. Find a babysitter or relative who can help out when you need more than a moment. Go for walks or swims with your grandkids to pass on healthy habits. Get regular check-ups, and be sure to notify your doctor if you feel "blue" or unreasonably exhausted.
Evelyn admits this isn't easy. "You become that 'somebody' again.'Somebody' take me to the mall.'Somebody' pick me up from my Scout meeting.'Somebody' sell snacks at my game," she says. "You do it because you want the kids to do what other kids do, but you have to set limits." She and her husband kindly told the school to "cut them slack" on refreshment-stand duty and scaled back on expensive club involvement. She also found a new outlet for her creativity — she taught art to her oldest grandchild's kindergarten class after parenting demands forced her to close her art gallery.
She's also learned that her finest works of art don't need to hang in a gallery. "All my grandchildren are self-sufficient adults who are ready to take care of themselves in this world," she says. "When you've done that, you know you've succeeded."
Get Your Grandchild a Support Group, Too
Getting her grandson involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters at age 7 was the best thing Piretta Patterson ever did for him — after taking over his care when he was ten months old, and adopting him five years ago. Because her family is African American, after her grandson's father died, Piretta says she initially hoped for a "35-year-old black man" to be his big brother.
But, it was "love-at-first-sight" when she and her grandson met the older white couple who became his big brother and sister. Seven years and dozens of golf outings, road trips, and swims in their pool later, her grandson still hangs out with the couple. As a teenager, though, he relies on them more for advice than adventures. The couple not only extended their family, says Piretta, but having them around allowed her to extend her feet — onto the coffee table. "It was a good time for me to just sit down and put my feet up," she says. Piretta suggests "widening your village of people," enlisting friends and your other children to give you a night off when you can be an adult and reintroduce yourself to that person on the other end of the crowded dinner table. (That'd be your spouse.)
Talk to Your Grandchildren about Their Parents & Circumstances
"Chances are, even if they are young, they know something about the situation," says AARP's Biscarr. "Your grandchildren will need to know they can talk to you when they are sad or scared or angry. It's your job to start the conversation."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.