Share this article

print logo


Times are changing, and nowhere are these changes more apparent than in the traditional definition of family. This term has expanded to accommodate a variety of options. Mom, dad and 2.5 kids are now the exception rather than the rule.

Single-parent households and children living between two sets of families has become commonplace. Another rapidly growing family makeup is the grandparent-headed household. A multitude of complex reasons have contributed to this increasing change in family dynamics -- death of the parent, illness, divorce, immaturity, incarceration of the parent, parental substance abuse, child abuse or neglect have forced many grandparents back into the role of parent.

The number of grandparent-headed households has increased 76 percent since 1970, and by 19 percent since 1990. Today there are 2.5 million grandparent-headed households where 4 million children are growing up; one-third of these children (1.3 million) have no parent present in the home. Very often grandparents have little choice other than to assume responsibility for the welfare of their grandchildren. With the children having been abandoned in some form by their parents they need the security of family to help them through the difficulties they'll be facing in the future.

Elliott and Stephanie Shapiro of Williamsville are grandparents who took on the responsibility of parenting a second time during a period of adjustment in their own lives.

Due to a variety of circumstances, the Shapiros are raising three of their grandchildren -- Paula, 17, Paulette, 17, and Tyler, 9.

"We had only been married a short time when Paula came into our lives. This is the second marriage for both of us," explains Stephanie. "We were ready to be old, and we couldn't be. We had to change a lot of plans."

"You do what you have to do," adds Elliott. "I have to admit they do keep you young. I had two boys, and when they were growing up I was working a lot. At 74, I have more time for the grandchildren. I just got back from a Boy Scout overnight camping trip. I never thought I'd be doing something like that at this age."

The time and effort the Shapiros have invested in their grandchildren has paid off.

Paula is a bright, attractive teenager who praises her grandparents.

"I was really young when I came to live here, but I remember how I immediately felt a sense of love and security," says Paula. "I love living here. My grampa knows everything. He's so smart. He was a part of history so he knows all about it, and he's always been so great helping me with my homework. My gramma, she just wants to take care of everybody. If there's an injured bird out in the back yard, she says, "Bring it in, there's always room for one more.' "

No one is more aware of this than Paulette, a lovely, energetic young woman, who came to stay with the Shapiros, from her home in Colombia, for a six-month visit. More than two years later, she's making plans to attend a local college in order to be closer to her grandparents.

"I just love being here with them, they do so much for us and take such good care of us. I have friends who diss their parents all the time, and it bothers me that they don't appreciate what they have. I'm sure their parents really care about them and just want to make sure that they're safe. There are rules that we have to follow. We have to do our homework and we have a curfew. It's no big deal, we understand why they're doing it."

The Shapiros make it look easy, but they admit having faced a few challenges.

"There is a role conflict between being a parent and a grandparent," says Stephanie. "Times are different. We brought our kids up in the '70s, and the world is a more dangerous place today. Babysitters raised our kids, and now we have a chance to be hands-on with our grandchildren. Like the girls said, we have rules. When they go out, they have to leave a name and phone number where they can be reached. And they do have a curfew. I think it's important to know who the kids are with."

The reality of being an older parent hasn't escaped the Shapiros.

"Fatigue is a big drawback," says Elliott. "We aren't as young as we were, and trying to keep up with them is a challenge."

The Shapiros have a "wonderful roll with the punches" attitude that makes their special family situation work.

"We've modified our lives to accommodate the kids, and at the same time we get to try new things," says Stephanie. "We used to go to the Philharmonic concerts, now we take Tyler to the kids concerts they put on. We go to the science museum more than we ever did, and Albright-Knox Art Gallery for crafts day. My husband and I may not have much time together alone but we do have quality time with the kids."

When a parent is no longer in the position to take care of their child, it's a life altering experience for the entire family. A grandparent who takes on the responsibilities of raising their own grandchildren may face many obstacles, but the benefits the children experience can reach far beyond their childhood.

Suzanne Smith from North Tonawanda, was 6 years old when her mother died. Her grandparents immediately stepped in without any hesitation.

"In a way we were there for each other," says Smith.

"My mother was an only child and I was an only child, this left a huge loss for all of us," she says. "My grandparents and I went through the healing process together by keeping my mother's memory alive. Even though losing my mother was extremely difficult at such a young age, I knew I was loved very deeply and I would be well-taken care of. There was an innate sense of security there."

Smith's grandparents were in their early 60s when she came to live with them. At a time when most adults their age were looking forward to retirement and travel they were thinking about first grade, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and teaching a little girl how to ride her first two-wheeler.

However, Smith is quick to interject the importance of traditional values her grandparents instilled in her.

"My husband and I are using those values to raise our own three children. They taught me how to save money and how to be conservative because they had lived through the Depression. I also learned about compassion and discovered my own inner strength when I cared for my grandmother when she became ill and died of cancer at 74. This left me on my own at the age of 19. With the tools my grandparents instilled in me, even though I was young, I felt I was prepared to face the challenges life had to offer."

Not all children experience the easy transition of the Shapiros' grandchildren and Suzanne Smith. There are situations when a parent does not want to relinquish custody of their child. This is when Child and Family Services and Child Welfare agencies have to step in to decide what is in the best interest of the child.

Babette Sullivan, from the PACT Program at Children's Hospital, feels there is a healthy move toward the best possible placement for children who are unable to live with their parents. "A goal of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act is to plan for permanency for foster children while minimizing placements in an overburdened system," explains Sullivan.

"Kinship placement is an alternative that attempts to keep the child with the biological family if there is a termination of parental rights (TPR) which can be accomplished by voluntary or involuntary relinquishment. This is an opportunity for grandparents to step in to care for their grandchildren. This is assessed case by case to identify an individual permanent plan for the child/children. This decision is extremely dependent on the individual care giver and their ability to provide a safe, loving, responsive and nurturing environment."

Parenting as a grandparent is an extremely difficult and life-altering decision to make. When the decision is made, grandparents need to know they don't have to go it alone. The AARP Grandparent Information Center provides information about services and programs that can help improve the lives of grandparent headed households. The center also offers Spanish language publications. Contact the GIC at or write AARP Grandparent Information Center, 601 E Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20049; phone: 20 2/4 34-2296.

"I have had the experience and pleasure of knowing grandparents taking care of their grandchildren," says Sullivan. "I applaud their love and devotion to their family. At the same time I respect the grandparent who cannot care for their grandchild/children and recognize their own limited resources."

There are no comments - be the first to comment