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Grandparents raising grandchildren: joining a support group

Marty Levine
January30/ 2014

Grandparents raising grandchildren: getting support

Mary Lou Wetzel has been raising her two grandsons, now 16 and 17, since the youngest was eight weeks old.


She and her husband Lee, of South Fayette Township, welcomed the children after domestic abuse and mental health issues, Wetzel says, forced them to step in. But they’ve needed a lot of other people and groups to step in along the way as well.

The local Alliance for Infants and Toddlers came to their home to aid the couple early on, “helping us adjust to living with an overly active toddler,” she says.

Dealing with the kids’ schools has been a mixed bag, she says: “Sometimes you got a lot of help from the school and the administration, and sometimes you think it’s a battle.”

Another contentious area is the doctor’s office. “I carry their court order showing we have legal custody of the boys,” she says. “Even to this day, having been going to this office for this or that, they say, ‘No, tell me … why are you bringing the child here and not the mom?’ If it were an allergy it would be in bold letters on their chart. Why can’t it be noted?”

Grandparents raising grandchildren support group

Then the Wetzels discovered the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group run by Sister Georgine Scarpino of the Sisters of Mercy, with two branches, in McKeesport and Bridgeville.

“You get to talk to other people who can relate to what you’re going through,” Wetzel says. “Moms and Dads … don’t understand what we’re going through.

“Sister Georgine, I think that’s some of the greatest things she has accomplished. Meeting together as a support group, just getting together with other grandparents and hearing their stories – that’s been hugely beneficial for us.”

She and Lee have the oldest grandchildren in the support group and can also advise others on what’s ahead, she says.

Finding the energy and time to raise their boys has been an issue, she notes: “You find the energy. We don’t do as much as all the families with kids do … but in the long run I think my grandkids have benefited, because working parents don’t always have the time to spend with their children.”

Her older son, she says, has learned to bake nut rolls at Christmas for the neighbors, as well as how to do minor electrical repairs and how to fix the lawn mower engine, thanks to Lee.

“I don’t know how many dads have time to do that,” she says.

Inside the support group

“They don’t know a whole lot of other people who are in the position they are in,” says Sister Georgine of the members of the grandparents in her groups. And the reasons they have become caretakers of their grandchildren vary widely, from the death of their own child to health and addiction issues among the parents. “It runs the whole gamut of problems in society,” she says.

“Not all the grandparents have the child in their houses,” Sister Georgine notes – some only handle afterschool care, while others have full legal responsibilities. Those without legal rights over their grandchildren have “no rights under the law, so the children can come and take the grandchildren back at any time,” she cautions.

The support group provides respite days, including a day in the country that offers massages and peaceful walks. It also brings in speakers to help grandparents deal with their kids issues – and their own. “They’re much older and they don’t have the energy they had in their twenties and thirties,” she says. “They should take care of themselves and get days away … turn off the phone.”

What do the grandparents want to know? “How to get resources when they have no legal right to their grandchildren. If they’re working, who takes care of the kids?

“Their whole lifestyle has to change,” she says. “They are not free to socialize with their friends who are the same age.”

Advice from an expert

Dr. Mary Carrasco, director of A Child’s Place at Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, has addressed Sister Georgine’s groups concerning these very issues.

“For some grandparents it’s particularly hard because part of them was looking forward to retirement and may have health issues,” Carrasco says.

In A Child’s Place, she deals with high-risk families and sees “a significant number of grandparents who are involved in the care of their grandchildren … much more than the image we have of this,” she says. Some grandkids are dropped off periodically, without warning, and there is no formal arrangement. The grandparents may possess a note from a parent, permitting them to make medical decisions on the day the child was dropped off. But what happens, she says, when “five days unexpectedly extends to five months and they’re doing this because they care but they don’t have legal custody …”

For some grandparents, trying to gain legal custody would harm their relationship with their child, she notes. Some children may react by taking the grandchildren away, ruining the only other family relation the grandchildren have.

The effort required to care for a grandchild can affect a grandparent’s health adversely, too.

“Sometimes you see a really loving, caring grandparent who could be the loving, wonderful grandparents they wanted to be – the kind you run up to get a hug from –  if they don’t have any other responsibilities.” But Carrasco has seen a grandparent trying to raise hyperactive two- and three-year-olds. “That combination just doesn’t work. They would’ve been a great grandparent but they don’t have the energy to be a good parent.”

Grandparents raising their grandchildren have lots of questions, Carrasco says: How do they recognize signs of abuse, and what do they do? “Will they miss signs of their grandkids getting involved in drugs and gangs? I clearly remember a sense of fear that ‘I’m older and I’m not with-it with the current times, so I may not recognize the signs of the kids getting in trouble.'” There is a sense, too, with many of these grandparents that they must have missed the signs of their own children getting in trouble, which is why they have their grandkids under their care in the first place.

But like Mary Lou Wetzel, Carrasco sees tremendous value in the grandparent/grandchild relationship as well. She recalls a story from her days as a 24-year-old medical intern, encountering a grandmother who was only 26.

“And here I was an intern, very puzzled about, should I have kids; I don’t think I’m ready. When I could step back and look at the quality of the care this child was receiving, did it matter that this was a grandparent? No. She was receiving extraordinary care.”

Photographs by John Altdorfer

Marty Levine