Support groups reach out to grandparents embracing parenthood a second time around
Connie McClendon has a favorite question for her 10-year-old grandson, Jacob Taylor, who came under her care almost four years ago when his father died.
'Jacob,' she says. 'What are you to me?'
In swift staccato Jacob shoots back, 'The-most-important-person-in-the-whole-wide-world.'
Grandma and grandson smile, and Connie gives Jacob a squeeze before he runs outside to poke at garden snakes with his buddy from school.
Sweet moments like these are many, but there also are days when Connie feels overwhelmed - more often than not, actually. At age 75, she's a single mom. Her second husband died in 2003. Six months and nine days later, her son Jeff died.
'We had quite a life,' she says. 'We were snowbirds, we went on camping trips. We had a motor home and a pontoon boat. We square-danced, we mushroomed, we traveled. And then your life does a 180.'
Connie moved from Roseburg to an east Portland retirement facility after her husband died, and took in her daughter-in-law and grandson when Jeff died. She soon became the sole caregiver for Jacob and is now trying to get custody of him.
Connie is quick to point out that she may be stressed and frustrated, but she wouldn't change the situation for the world.
'One day God gave me a little boy to raise,' she says, her eyes welling with tears. 'And God gives you the strength to do what you have to do.'
The changes in Connie's life have been many.
She moved into a small home near Gilbert Heights Elementary School, let her normally 'showplace' yard become Jacob's play area and relaxed her neatnik standards.
Everything a mom would do, Connie does. She volunteers at his school, goes on all his class field trips, takes him to the doctor, cooks his meals, does his laundry and helps him with his homework.
And although Connie says she feels alone in her plight much of the time, she is not. Grandparent caregivers have increased nationwide by 30 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
In Multnomah County, there are an estimated 4,539 grandparents raising their grandchildren, according to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
In response to the growing trend, Multnomah County's Family Caregiver Support Program organized a grandparents retreat, complete with speakers, prizes and free massage, for Thursday, April 19, at the YWCA East building in Gresham. They have been inundated with phone calls. The retreat is booked up, with 60 participants, and there is a waiting list.
Loriann McNeill, Family Caregiver Support Program coordinator, says the retreat has received so much interest that it will become an annual event. In the meantime, she urges grandparent caregivers to call the county's 24-hour helpline at 503-988-3646 to connect with financial and emotional safety nets.
One such group, which began meeting in March, is in Gresham. Called Loving Hearts RAPP (Relatives as Parents Program), the support group meets the second Monday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon at the Rockwood Community Center, 18750 S.E. Stark St.
Cynthia Martin, 55, started the group after she couldn't find a group for grandparents in East County. Cynthia has been caring for her grandson for about a year and hopes to return him to her daughter's care soon.
'There was nothing out there that I could find,' Cynthia says. 'I was convinced I was the only one doing this. It seemed like there was no help for me. It seemed like I was facing everything on my own. So I became very adamant to find a way to help others when I got through this.'
Despite the likely happy ending for her grandson, Cynthia says she realizes that for many, returning the child to his or her parents is not an option.
'Doing this just for a year has opened my eyes to what people go through,' she says. 'And I wanted to create something that can help people deal with it.'
Cynthia applied for and won a grant to fund her support group. Connie says she wanted to go to the group so bad, she missed one of Jacob's field trips to attend.
'It was just awesome to be able to connect with other people in my situation,' Connie says.
The causes for grandparent care are many and can include illness, alcohol or drug addiction, prison, poverty, divorce and domestic violence. Because of these causes, grandparents often have the daunting task of correcting bad parenting, healing emotional scars and dealing with behavioral problems.
These tough issues take their toll, and Cynthia says that's where support groups come in.
'For two hours, we don't have to work, and we're able to talk among ourselves and really share frustrations and triumphs and share about the children,' she says.
Finding a new sense of community is imperative for grandparent or relative caregivers, because they often feel isolated.
'I spend time with my senior friends, and they can't relate to me wondering what to put in an Easter basket nowadays, and then I spend time with Jacob's friends' parents and they can't relate to me because I'm older, and I'm dealing with things like osteoporosis,' she says. 'I'm in this little cocoon of my own. You're in a world all by yourself.'
A busy schedule of baseball three times a week and tae kwon do once a week, plus homework, means Connie's social life has taken a big hit.
'I can't go to the casino for the day or to the coast,' she says. 'I've got to be home at 3:15 when Jacob gets home from school. Then I have to make dinner and help him with homework, do some laundry, read him his bedtime story and get him in bed.'
Sometimes, Connie says, she misses being a typical grandparent.
'I wish I could give him junk food and spoil him rotten,' she says. 'But I am in the parent role. I have to teach him and discipline him, too.'
One of the most frustrating things, Connie says, has been not having the right to sign off on Jacob's health care.
'I'd like him to be in counseling, but I can't sign for it because I'm not his legal guardian,' she says. 'I have all the responsibility and no tools.'
That's one of the reasons she is seeking legal custody, which is costing a pretty penny.
Financial hardship often plagues grandparents raising grandchildren. Nationally, 19 percent of grandparent caregivers are living in poverty. In Multnomah County, 52 percent of grandparent caregivers are women and 8 percent are living in poverty, according to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
Luckily for Connie, she has three daughters living in the area who are doting aunts to Jacob.
Family is usually at the heart of grandparents who take in their grandchildren. They are often the last stopgap before foster care.
'We want to keep our families together,' Cynthia says. 'We have our families' best interests at heart.'
Resources for grandparents
There are numerous resources, both emotional and financial, available. Call Multnomah County's 24-hour helpline at 503-988-3646. Ask to be put on the mailing list and you will receive the county's quarterly newsletter, which is filled with ideas and resources for caregivers.
Below are two East County support groups:
Loving Hearts RAPP (Relatives as Parents Program) Support Group
Rockwood Community Center
18750 S.E. Stark St.
Contact Cynthia Martin at 971-207-1765
Second Monday of each month from 10 a.m. to noon. Coffee and refreshments available.
Parenting Connections: The RAFT Relative, Adoptive and Foster Family Team
East Hill Church
Main Auditorium Building, Room A15
701 N. Main Ave.
RSVP to Debbie at 503-761-4686
This support group is a faith-based group. All are welcome.
Third Saturday of the month from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
A pre-meeting family event is often held from 5 to 6 p.m. and includes pizza, crafts or movies. Childcare is provided.