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Let's Talk Mental Health: Grandparents raising grandchildren

By: Oscar Wright, Ph.D.
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You assumed that your days of raising children were over. But surprisingly, a twist of fate happens with little or no advance notice. You have to raise your grandchildren, and one child experiences a severe mental disorder. When parents are rendered unable to care for their children because of incarceration, poverty, substance abuse or some serious health condition, grand families often become primary caregivers. Though supportive, many are unprepared.

Census data indicate about 7.8 million children in the United States are living in households headed by a grandparent or other relative; 5.8 million children live in grandparent homes alone. Particularly, in the case of grandparents caring for children with mental health issues, an analysis of this emerging trend, especially of those grandparents caring for children with mental health issues, reveals both a crisis of support and an opportunity to serve the unmet needs of these aging caregivers.

From a positive perspective, nurturing grandparents allow children to flourish by:

1. Enabling siblings to stay together.

2. Allowing children to stay in contact with family members.

3. Reducing the number of out-of-home placements.

4. Stabilizing care.

5. Raising children who thrive in a more loving environment.

On the other hand, the care of young children experiencing mental health challenges is particularly intense and physically demanding. Grandparents may experience frustration of shame or guilt about their own child's inability to care for the grandchild. Stress-related conditions such as depression and hypertension are not uncommon. Family relationships can be strained and custody disputes may aggravate the situation. In addition, when grandparents assume responsibility for young children unexpectedly, they may face increased strain because of low or limited incomes. For example, with 70 percent of grandparents under the age of 60, many are too young to qualify for Medicare, Social Security and other public benefits available to seniors.

So, how do we help these heroes of hope? Grand-families need time out from the physical, mental and emotional demands of daily care-giving. Respite care provides temporary relief for caregivers from the ongoing responsibility of caring for an individual, children in this case, with special needs. It is important to note that respite care is not child care. Respite care is an opportunity to re-energize and refuel to meet unrelenting challenges. With quality respite care, grandparents have time to participate in support groups, obtain services so families can function effectively or secure health services that protect their ability to raise special-needs children.

In December 2006, Congress passed, and the president signed, the Lifespan Respite Care Act.

It is up to Congress to continue providing funding each year. At the state level, we must engage the participation of grand-families in the design and implementation of respite care programs. Not only should grand-families become a targeted group for respite care, but they should also be intricately involved in the development and implementation of these programs.

Grand-families can access a treasure trove of resources at the Grand Families State Law and Policy Resource Center, www.grandfamilies.org. Also, to find a respite program in your area, contact the National Respite Locator at (919) 490-5577, extension 233, or the California Respite Association at (707) 644-4491, www.calrespite.org.

Remember these words during your silent moments of reflection: There's probably silver in your hair, but it's the gold in your heart that we love. Thanks grandma and grandpa!

I'd like to hear from readers at talkback@uacf4hope.org.

Oscar Wright, Ph.D., is the CEO of United Advocates for Children and Families, a statewide nonprofit that provides support to parents, families, children and youth experiencing mental health challenges. Visit www.uacf4hope.org.