Sharon Olson had been a mother for decades and a grandmother for only a few years when she got a call that would change her life forever.
“I was at work,” Olson recalled. “I remember listening and thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ But something just told me I needed to say yes or there may not be another chance.”
What Olson agreed to that day 25 years ago was to care for her three grandchildren, ages 1, 2 and 7. The children, who were living in New Mexico at the time, were being removed from the care of their parents — Olson’s son and his then-wife — because of neglect caused in part by their mother’s alcoholism. The social worker on the other end of the line wanted to know if Olson was willing to take three young, traumatized children (the two youngest were her biological grandchildren and the oldest was her daughter-in-law’s child from an earlier relationship) into her home in Elk River for what would likely be a few months.
After agreeing to care for her grandchildren, Olson felt shell-shocked.
“I hung up and just sat at my desk,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I have to go home now. How am I going to tell my new husband? We’ve only been married for a month.’”
Olson said her husband stepped up to the plate and assumed his new hybrid role of step-grandparent/parent. With the help of her adult daughter, Olson said, “he helped me care for the kids. We all shifted our jobs. We made sacrifices. We worked together. It was tough sometimes, but we did what we needed to do as a family.”
In recent years, stories like Olson’s are becoming more and more common. As rates of addiction and mental illness continue to rise, more grandparents are assuming the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren when their adult children lose the ability to parent.
Addiction, especially opioid addiction, can tear families apart, said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York and professor of professor of pediatrics at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.
“When addiction or death from addiction means that parents are unable to care for their children themselves, grandparents often must assume primary care,” he said. “These role shifts cause upheaval in a family and, for the grandparent, emotional stress over taking on a role that they weren’t expecting to have to assume ever again.”
The number of families like Olson’s is on the rise in the United States, Adesman said: “According to the CDC, in 2016 more than 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for raising their grandchildren.”
The story is similar in Minnesota. Though they don’t collect data directly on the impact of addiction on parenting grandparents, Kari Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging, said, “We’re seeing an increase in the number of grandparents raising grandchildren.” Service providers supported by the board report, she added, that “grandparents and other kinship caregivers are grappling with this situation. Many say that they have needed to step in and provide support to grandchildren when their child is suffering from addiction.”
In reaction to this trend, Adesman coined the term “grandfamilies,” to describe multigenerational families headed by parenting grandparents. Last year, he, along with co-author Christine Adamec, wrote “The Grandfamily Guidebook: Wisdom and Support for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren,” a book that offers medical advice as well as insight gathered from grandparents, in combination with data collected from the 2016 Adesman Grandfamily Study. “The Grandfamilies Guidebook” was published by Minnesota-based Hazedlen Publishing.
Adesman said he felt the book was needed because, even though their numbers are on the rise, grandfamilies lack the specific supports needed help them through this transition. Many books have been published about addiction and recovery, he added, but few have been written to support families impacted by addiction in this specific way.
“On one hand you would think that they are naturals at this job,” Adesman said of parenting grandparents. “The second time around should be a breeze. But the reality is that there are many ways that parenting grandchildren can be more challenging than parenting your own children.”
In search of support
When Olson first started taking care of her grandchildren, she felt she was alone in the wilderness with no guideposts to show her how best to raise these three young children.
“There was nothing out there about grandparents raising grandchildren,” she said. “And there was nothing at all about raising grandchildren who’d faced trauma like mine had. It was like our very existence was kept so far under the radar.”
At first, Olson was under the impression that her grandkids’ visit would be temporary. “The social workers in New Mexico told me they were going to give the parents a chance to correct their issues so the kids could go back home to them,” she said, “but instead the parents ended up divorcing and going their own ways. The kids just remained here with us.”
As a short-term visitation turned into a long-term solution, Olson searched for grandparent support groups. She didn’t find any. “It was like we didn’t even exist,” she said.
Olson soon discovered that she needed all the support she could get: Eventually all three of the children were diagnosed with varying forms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). She decided she needed to quit her job and stay home full time to care for them.
“It took a lot of family coordinating to do this,” she said. The decision, which felt like the best thing for the children and the rest of her family, “impacted not only our savings but it also added stress to our relationship. Everything fell on my husband’s shoulders financially. And because I wasn’t paying enough to Social Security during those years, I don’t have that much money to retire on.”
With her considerable energy focused on her family, Olson set out to find other parenting grandparents — and to build support networks for them. Today she’s still involved in a number of grandparents’ groups, including GrandFamilies of Minnesota. She’s also served on the Sherburne County Safe Child Council, and she worked to help write MN statute 257C, the state’s de facto custodian law, which in part grants legal custodial rights to grandparents raising their grandchildren.
The statute’s wording is now “used across the country,” Olson said: “Minnesota was the third state to get that law written. It is a tremendous law. It doesn’t require you to prove the parents unfit. Instead it focuses on who has been raising the child. It is a tremendous avenue for grandparents and other relatives who are outside of the formal foster system.”
Adesman never ceases to be impressed by the work and commitment of grandparents like Olson, who have made sacrifices and committed their lives to the responsible, loving care of their grandchildren.
“When parents struggle with addiction, many times their children come into the care of grandparents in their infant or toddler years,” Adesman said. While assuming the care for a young child under short notice can be stressful, to say the least, he added, “It’s the best thing for the child. And most grandparents are stepping up to the plate and doing their absolute best. It is a tremendous sacrifice in terms of time and money, but they know it is in the best interest of their grandchild.” Parenting grandparents, like Olson, Adesman added, “are tremendous, unsung heroes for doing what they do.”
Olson understands the lasting impact of addiction. Her first husband was an alcoholic, and she is aware of the emotional scars that the experience left on her and her children. When she realized that her grandchildren’s scars from addiction were more than emotional, Olson committed herself to supporting them for the rest of her life.
All three children lived with Olson and her husband until her son arrived to take the middle child, a boy, on a visit. He never brought the child back, and Olson eventually lost custody. She doesn’t think he ever got treatment for his FASD.
“He’s just a broken soul,” Olson said of her grandson. “He’s back up in this area now, and we hear from him from occasionally. He’s been in and out of jail numerous times. It is very sad.”
The older girl’s disabilities are the most pronounced.
“She is now 31 but functions at the age of a 2-year-old,” Olson said. The young woman has lived with Olson in Elk River since she arrived from New Mexico. Though their connection is not biological, it is strong, Olson said: “We are the only grandparents she has ever known and we are committed to caring for her.”
The younger girl struggled academically, but with Olson’s help managed to graduate high school and beauty school. “My youngest granddaughter struggles with certain aspects in school, including comprehension and math,” Olson said. Though she never officially qualified for learning supports at school, “We had to use a great deal of time on homework with her.”
When her biological mother briefly came back into her life, Olson said the girl rebelled, ran away from home, and got pregnant. Later, the girl returned to the only stable home she’d ever known. “She came back to the family,” Olson said. “We pulled together and arranged to help her through this.”
It was a struggle for everyone, but she made it through. Today, Olson said, her granddaughter, a “stunningly beautiful young lady,” has built a happy life for herself and her young child. She works as a beautician and lives not far from her grandparents, aunt and cousins.
“She has her first car, she bought herself a townhouse, which she qualified for on her own,” Olson said, proudly. “For a young lady with a 5-year-old son and so many strikes against her to have her own place, her own vehicle and to have paid off her student loans, she’s just so impressive.”
Can grandparents bear the burden?
Taking on the responsibility of caring for young children sounds like a major stressor for grandparents, something that could have a negative impact on their health and well-being. Adesman wondered about that impact when he and Adamec decided to write their book; to find out the reality, they launched a pair of studies to better understand the impact that parenting grandchildren has on grandparents.
What he found was that even though raising grandchildren has its share of financial and emotional stressors, parenting grandparents tend to report that their mental and physical health is good.
Grandparents raising grandchildren are poorer than average in terms of their age group, and many report struggling to discipline and educate their young charges, but most report that they are doing OK. Though they report a lack financial and emotional support for their efforts, they also see the long-term benefits of caring for their grandchildren.
One of the long-term benefits of parenting grandchildren may be the fact that the experience could help offset the feelings of isolation that many older people today experience, Benson said.
“Oftentimes we hear from older people that we serve across all of our programs that they feel disconnected from life, especially from the younger generation,” she said. “They wish there were more meaningful roles they could play — not just for relatives but also for younger kids and families — so maybe being able to spend time caring for grandchildren fills some of that need.”
In large national surveys of adults raising children, parenting grandparents’ responses to questions about life satisfaction and stress were similar to those of parents.
“If you adjust for all of the variables it turns out that parenting grandparents are doing pretty well,” Adesman said. “When we asked respondents, ‘How well do you think you are handling the day-to-day challenges of raising children?’ there were not major differences between the parents and the grandparents,” Adesman said. “That’s a good sign.”
Olson said that raising her grandchildren has been tough, but it has made her a better person. While she’s troubled when she hears from “materially minded” grandparents who lament that they haven’t been able to go on a cruise or buy a new house, she’s happy with the priorities that she set the day she agreed to take in three small, scared kids. She also hopes she’s been able to stop the cycle of addiction for at least two of her grandchildren.
“A lot of the time, we did without,” Olson said. “My husband had this house nearly paid for when we took in the children. He had to re-mortgage it a number of times for us to be able to support them, but we don’t mind. Our attitude is, ‘You do what you have to do. The children are that important.’ They’ve made our life so much richer.”
Minnesota grandparents caring for grandchildren can contact Lutheran Social Services’ Kinship Support Services Warmline at 651-917-4640 or 1-877-917-4640 for connections to help and resources.
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