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A Grandparent's Guidance

As kinship care becomes more common, some NEA-Retired members serve as daily influences on the lives of their grandchildren

By Janet Rivera Mednik

“Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go; the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifted snow.”

That sweet refrain of long ago about a highly anticipated visit to the cozy confines of an older generation once far away from home sounds somewhat quaint and outdated today. Now, more grandmas (and grandpas, too) are playing a key, day-to-day role in the rearing of their grandchildren. In fact, some 7.8 million U.S. children today share a home with their grandparents at some point in their lives, according to a 2010 research study conducted by U.S. 2010, and funded by Brown University and the Russell Sage Foundation.


Linda Deliduka with her
grandaughter, Neisha 

Linda Deliduka’s 21-year-old granddaughter, Neisha, is among 1 million kids living in homes where the grandparent is the householder and neither parent is present in the home. In Neisha’s case, the arrangement wasn’t for only a few years. Instead, she spent most of her young life living with and being raised by her grandmother.

Neisha isn’t alone. A growing number of moms and dads—due to mental illness, substance abuse, poverty and/or incarceration—are unable to parent on a daily basis. Some of these children remain in highly dysfunctional homes. Others become part of the foster care system. Some live with relatives. Those in the last group, who live with their aunts, uncles, or grandparents, form the basis of what are now known as “kinship families.” More than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the responsibility for these children.

“Kinship families are on the rise,” explains Deliduka, a retired NEA-represented teacher from Vermont. “These families cross all social and economic section[s] of our country. Many are invisible because of shame, blame, and embarrassment, but the truth is we can longer ignore these families. Substance abuse and mental illness know no bounds; all economic classes are affected.”
Deliduka became the matriarch of her own kinship family nearly 20 years ago when she opened her heart, arms, and home to her granddaughter, who was then just a toddler. It was an easy path leading to the decision to parent her grandchild, but the reality of a senior raising a young child was a vastly more difficult, bumpy road to traverse.

Becoming a parent for a second time around can take a financial and emotional toll for kinship parents who are either in retirement or have that goal in sight. Affording orthodontic braces, purchasing school clothes, and paying for athletic teams and/or social events can take a hit on one’s “nest egg.” And participating in social situations with parents who are 20-plus years younger can be more than a bit unsettling.

“It’s a difficult situation for these families. Finances can be tight and social connections can become strained,” says Deliduka, who retired from teaching when her granddaughter was 12 years old. “It’s easy to feel isolated. Grandparents can feel lonely, and grandkids can as well.”

Despite these challenges, there are people and programs out there to help. Deliduka is one of those people. She leads an effort that helps kinship families navigate the maze of safety net programs available in healthcare, education, and nutrition, and alleviate some of the stress for these families. “I don’t take funds from government agencies, but I still do what I can to get the word out about the financial assistance that is available to kinship families,” explains Deliduka. But her efforts aren’t limited to financial help. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure our grandchildren stay connected to their families, but it’s not always easy. That’s why community and government support is so important.”

 
Lindy Hiatt-Hecox and grandson, Dylan.

While all kinship families could use support from time to time, it is particularly vital for those in low-wage, non-union jobs, and single mothers, like Lindy Hiatt-Hecox’s daughter.

After more than three decades of teaching reading in the Chicago suburbs, Hiatt-Hecox looked forward to spending retirement with her husband. She imagined a life filled with extended travel and thrilling spontaneity. But when her daughter was having a tough time making ends meet, Hiatt-Hecox willingly put her plans on hold so she could help her daughter with living expenses and the care of her grandson, who was then only six months old. Some five years later, Hiatt-Hecox’s home is filled with toys and her calendar is packed with child-related appointments.

“It’s not how I imagined spending retirement,” says Hiatt-Hecox. “But, I love my daughter and grandson and want what is best for them. The arrangement does present challenges, however.”

For starters, space is tight. A comfortable three-bedroom, two-bathroom house can feel a bit small when shared by three adults and a five-year-old boy. Secondly, conflict can arise when parenting styles between Grandma and Mom differ. And, finally, figuring out the household budget can be tricky.

Still, Hiatt-Hecox takes the difficulties in stride and focuses on the positive. “Some days I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I’m glad my husband and I are in the position to help. I know I am lucky to be able to put my grandson to sleep at night and to see him at breakfast in the morning.”

Hiatt-Hecox notes post-retirement travel has not been delayed entirely. It has simply changed course. For example, she and her husband packed up a motor home and spent three weeks visiting National Parks in nine states, with her grandson in tow.

“You can retire from the classroom, but you never stop being a teacher. I enjoy being part of my grandson’s learning process and delight in watching him grow. Living in a multi-generational home isn’t always easy, but it does have its rewards,” explains Hiatt-Hecox.

And the multi-generational house may be expanding even further, as Hiatt-Hecox is preparing for her own mother to join the household in the near future. “The calendar will get fuller and so will my days, but somehow we will make it work,” she says.
So maybe a trip to grandma’s house will no longer include going “over the river and through the woods.” Maybe it will now just be going home.


The Tapestry of Life

Grandma, Meemaw, Granny, Grandmother, Nana, or Grandee—as her grandchildren call Debbie Landers, a retired NEA teacher—often holds a lofty position in families across the nation and around the globe. They are beloved, respected family members, but it also is widely accepted that they are a key to understanding a family’s ancestral past and an integral part of shaping its future.

Landers holds many roles beyond “Grandee”, including former member of the Alabama Education Association and current president of the Etowah (Alabama) Educators Retiree Association. “Grandee” is the position she cherishes most. After all, Landers credits her three grandchildren with bringing her joy when she was suffering through some of her life’s lowest moments.

Landers explains it this way: “My grandchildren have come into my life when I needed them most. My first grandchild came 18 years ago when I was a new divorcee and a single mom of a teenager and a 21-year-old. My grandson filled a hole that divorce had created. We bonded from the beginning, just as I did with his dad, my son, some 20 years before. What a blessing the giggles of joy were.

“My second grandchild came one year after the tragedy of a lifetime—the sudden death of my first-born son, Jason, in 2006. My granddaughter became my sunshine, my hope. Her beauty runs straight through to her soul. She is my second blessing.

“My third grandchild—born last fall—came after a year of caregiving to my mom, who had suffered two strokes and dementia last summer. I thought I could not feel again. However, when I looked into those beautiful baby blue eyes, I knew life was still good.”

 

To celebrate her grandchildren (Cole, 18, McKenzi, 8, and Randi, 6 months), Landers spent months collecting family photographs and writing short stories about different family members, highlighting their likes and dislikes, personality traits, childhood memories, and more. The culmination of her work was an, 18-page album entitled, “The Tapestry of My Life.” She read from and presented these family history books to each grandchild and their families last Christmas.

“It was a very therapeutic and moving experience for me to work on the album,” says Landers. “The project illustrates to my family that each person—like a string of thread in a tapestry—has made an impact on the fabric of our life as a family.

As a family, we have seen a lot of tragedy, but we will remain strong.” The albums have a special place in each of the grandchildren’s homes. The story of their families has been written, but, as Landers reminds her grandchildren, it is up to them to decide how that story will end.

With the wisdom, love, and support of their Grandee to guide them, Landers’ grandchildren will continue to be part of a strong family tapestry that holds tight.

 

Published in:

Published In

31-Aug-15

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