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Raising children for a second time, ‘grandfamilies’ struggle during the pandemic

More and more older adults are raising kids for the second time around because of illness, incarceration, addiction, or any number of reasons. And since the start of the pandemic, almost 40 percent of "grandfamilies" say they struggle to pay for housing, and a third have trouble accessing food. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's an important change in parenting here in the U.S. More and more older adults are raising kids for the second time around, because of illness, incarceration, addiction, or any number of reasons.

    Stephanie Sy reports on grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren and what they're up against in the pandemic.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Joanne Clough brought up two kids on her own. She never imagined that she'd have another child to raise at the age of 64, a very lively one.

  • Joanne Clough:

    It's just not something you economically plan for. I'm a single grandmother rolling the rock back up the hill.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How old are you, Carter?

  • Child:

    Four.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There's no way you're 4. You look like you're 5.

    Carter's mother, Emily, Joanne's oldest daughter, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2016.

  • Joanne Clough:

    I every day grieve Emily's loss of Carter, because she will do something cute or — and I just think, over my God, Emily, I can't believe you're missing this. You know, I just can't believe you're missing this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The opioid epidemic has contributed to the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren, says gerontologist Megan Dolbin-MacNab.

  • Megan Dolbin-Macnab:

    There is a priority within the child welfare system to place children with relatives whenever that's possible. And that's due to the fact that it's helpful to maintain those connections.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It also saves the system money, a cost that is often borne by grandparents who can't afford it; 19 percent of grandfamilies live in poverty.

  • Megan Dolbin-Macnab:

    Many of them are on limited. For many grandparents, the addition of those expenses really kind of overwhelm the resources that they have.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Lisa Lennon was making it work with a cleaning business that allowed her to support her grandkids, 12-year-old Luke and little Jackson, still in diapers. But since the pandemic, she's lost most of her clients.

  • Lisa Lennon:

    You barely keep your head above the water, and that doesn't feel very good. It doesn't allow me to feel like I can provide everything Jackson needs, everything Luke needs, and also survive.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Behind on rent, she's worried about getting evicted.

    How are you doing with food?

  • Lisa Lennon:

    We get food from the church. And we run short toward the end of the month, but we stretch it out and make it work.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Since the start of the pandemic, almost 40 percent of grandfamilies say they struggle to pay for housing. A third have trouble accessing food.

  • Lisa Lennon:

    I was strong and confident in my ability to care for the children, and myself, for that matter. But this is — at this point, I think, psychologically, I feel knocked down, just based on not being able to sustain myself and having to ask others for help, because I'm used to helping everyone else.

    So, I'm not used to that.

  • Lisa Banks:

    I wish I had someone's sofa that I could lay on for two hours and just cry my eyeballs out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Having a good cry would be a luxury these days, says Lisa Banks. She's got three grandchildren at home doing virtual school.

  • Lisa Banks:

    I'm trying to spread myself thin amongst three kids, which is difficult. A lot of the work, I don't understand because I have been out of school so long and things have changed so much.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And with no school lunch, the dishes and the bills are piling up.

  • Lisa Banks:

    It's like, I'm hungry, I'm hungry, I'm hungry. You hear it all day, so it's breakfast, it's snack, it's lunch, it's snack, it's dinner, it's snack. You're spending it more in utilities because they're using more electricity. Everything goes up.

  • Rhea Kelsall:

    Any of this stuff here, you can take as much as you want.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Banks recently found some help through a local nonprofit group called Gratitude 4 Grandparents. Every Sunday, founder Rhea Kelsall distributes donated food and essentials from her basement.

  • Rhea Kelsall:

    So many of the families had part-time jobs that lost their jobs. They have less income now than they had prior to the pandemic.

    Gratitude 4 Grandparents is here for them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kelsall herself can relate. She and her fiance are raising two grandchildren between them, also because of substance addiction.

  • Rhea Kelsall:

    Carl's (ph) my fiance's biological grandson. And his dad is deceased from an overdose.

    I do sometimes think that the big G had a plan, because we understand what the other one is going through.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And they have gone through a lot. The latest hurdle, the pandemic forced Kelsall to close the daycare she was running.

  • Rhea Kelsall:

    Totally lost my income, and now we're on his fixed income.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kelsall, like most grandparents, is raising the kids outside of the foster care system.

  • Rhea Kelsall:

    They're your blood. You want to take them home and take care of them and love them and everything else. It is not even a consideration.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But without legal custody or guardianship, it can be tough to tap into government support services.

  • Megan Dolbin-Macnab:

    There can be eligibility requirements that push some grandparents out. And many of them really struggle.

    And I think, with the pandemic, particularly for grandparents who may — who might have been laid off or are not getting income from other family members that maybe they're used to, it can be very devastating.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nonprofits like Kelsall's are trying to fill the need, which includes emotional support.

    We joined the group's monthly Zoom meeting.

    I wanted to see if I could see a show of hands.

    I asked who thought the pandemic had compounded the challenges they faced.

  • Woman:

    Me.

    Not surprisingly, every hand went up.

  • Kim Elia:

    Never did I think I would be this short of breath.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sixty-year-old grandmother Kim Elia was recovering from COVID-19.

  • Kim Elia:

    My oxygen was at 86, and I was truly afraid to die because of what would happen to Brooklyn.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Brooklyn is the 11-year-old grandchild she's raised since she was a baby.

  • Kim Elia:

    It was absolutely mind-numbing, the fear that I had.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With the cloud of COVID, there's worry.

  • Paul Anderson:

    I wake up thinking about these kids and I go to sleep thinking about them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    With the shadow of the past, there's worry.

  • Barb Anderson:

    They have experienced a great deal of trauma in their lives. And, I mean, what they need, they can't have, their mother.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The grandkids' mental health weighs on Paul and Barb Anderson.

  • Barb Anderson:

    This thing of the kids going to school on the computer and not having a social life just exacerbates the problem, I think.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As heavy as the burden may sometimes be, the children, say Lisa Lennon, are also what lift her up.

  • Lisa Lennon:

    They're my inspiration and reason to wake up these days.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    On good days and bad days, says Lisa Banks.

  • Lisa Banks:

    You go through those moments, you go through those stresses, you cry, you fight, you argue, whatever it takes, but you're still there at the end.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And that's what really matters.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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