Family takes care of family

At an age when their friends are dealing with empty nest syndrome, many Americans are now becoming parents again. However, most of these folks are not giving birth to late-in-life children — they are raising grandchildren.

According to the 2000 census, one out of every 20 children in this country — that’s about 1.4 million youngsters — is being raised in homes where neither mother nor father are present. Moreover, more than 4 million children live in a household headed by a grandparent. Finally, 10 percent of American grandparents are raising grandchildren. In addition, countless others are providing significant help beyond the usual after-school babysitting and weekend care.

Malka Scheinok, 63, and her husband, Terry, have been helping to care for her 7- and 4-year-old granddaughters ever since her daughter was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. While she doesn’t live with her grandchildren, Scheinok plays a major role filling in as a primary caretaker in their daily lives.

“Before, I did a lot of babysitting and was involved in their Jewish education,” Scheinok, who is a Jewish educator at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, explained.

“Now I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible by keeping their schedules on track and trying to keep as normal of a schedule as possible.”

In addition to the physical illness or death of the parents, grandparents are taking on the care of grandchildren for a number of reasons, according to Janet Fuiten of The Parent Place in Springfield, Ill.

“Usually the grandparent steps in when the parent is mentally ill, has problems with alcohol or drugs or is just too immature to raise a child,” said Fuiten, who is both program coordinator and a court advocate for relatives raising children. Other cases may include incarceration, abandonment and child abuse.

For other grandparents who are involved in part-time care, the situation may be more about providing a family alternative to hiring a nanny. Benita Drobey, who is 71, moved from San Mateo to San Francisco to live with her son and daughter-in-law, to care for her 18-month-grandchild while the parents were at work.

“I don’t believe in nannies,” she said. “I think a child is better off with parents and grandparents.”

But in more serious cases, when there are problems with a grown child, grandparents find themselves facing custody issues. Relationships recognized in courts of law are adoption, guardianship, certification as a foster parent and powers of attorney.

Once grandparents have custody of their grandchildren, they sometimes like to talk to others in the same situation, according to Fuiten. Debbie Deopere, senior employment specialist with Project LIFE Area Agency on Aging Inc., says support groups and seminars are a good idea.

Both Deopere and Fuiten agree that raising a child is never easy, and the demands of parenting later in life can compound the difficulties.

Scheinok finds that in some ways she is more concerned and feels more stress helping to raise her grandchildren than she did with her own children.

“I think I was a calmer parent than grandparent,” she said. “I guess it is more worrisome — taking care of someone else’s child.”

Drobey’s grandchild (who is in the “no, no, no stage,” she reports) reminds her of her son in many ways. But Drobey, who was raised Catholic in southern Italy and whose daughter-in-law is Jewish, finds that it is easier to help raise her grandchild than it was her own children.

“I keep a neutral kind of place. I do not make the rules, and I follow them more or less. When no one is here I use my own judgment.”

Deopere and Fruiten urge grandparents to ask for help when they need it.

“With support groups, it is more than likely that friendships will develop,” Deopere says. “It is always good to meet with people sharing the same responsibilities.”

Besides talking to other people in similar situations, folks caring for grandchildren should get legal advice about financial planning and custody. They shouldn’t forget to take care of themselves, both physically and emotionally, Deopere says.

“Find a trusted friend or relative to baby-sit. Take time for activities you enjoy,” she says.

If a grandchild would benefit from another adult mentor, grandparents should consider enrolling him or her in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America program. They can pair the youngster with a caring adult who will spend quality time with him or her — and give the caregiver a break, too.

Finally, if it is at all possible, grandparents should keep the lines of communication open with the child’s parents. If seeing the non-custodial parent is upsetting to a child, they could keep in touch by phone, cards or e-mail. Remember, the issues that led a parent to give up custody may someday be resolved.

The Scheinoks and Drobey see their decisions as the best possible option under the circumstances.

“The involvement is more than we thought it would be [as grandparents], but family takes care of family,” Scheinok said.

And Drobey, who was raised by a large extended family, calls her experience “worthwhile” and one of the “best in the world.”