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Growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren

| Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 10:32 a.m.
Kathy Mackey and her husband, Kevin, play with their granddaughter, Alexandria Gawlick, 3, in their Leechburg yard. Erica Hilliard | Tribune-Review
Kathy Kelley and her granddaughter, Jaylee Brestensky, 4, of Buffalo Township, play on their trampoline. Erica Hilliard | Tribune-Review
Jeneen Jones of Lawrenceville holds her granddaughter, Taja, 7, and grandson, Cameron, 2. Jeneen has custody of Taja, who is her son's daughter. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

This isn't the way Kathy Kelley envisioned her middle age. Yet, under the circumstances, she wouldn't allow it to be any different.Kelley, 56, of Sarver, Buffalo Township, is raising her granddaughter, Jaylee Brestensky, 4. Kelley's daughter could not be a parent to the little girl, Kelley says, so she obtained custody."I would never let the state take her," Kelley says about Jaylee, who just got baptized. "My granddaughter is my flesh and blood, and she's a beautiful little girl."This is the hardest job I've had in 30 years," says Kelley, who also drives a school bus full-time. "It's very hard. It's the last thing I wanted to do at my age. (Jaylee) is a very good little girl ... but the anxiety level is horrible. Some days, it's just overwhelming."The pattern of life usually goes like this: Parents raise their kids, their kids grow up, and then the kids raise their own kids. But it doesn't always happen that way. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 4.5 million American children -- about 6.3 percent of kids younger than 18 -- are living in grandparent-headed households, which is a 30 percent increase since 2000.Pennsylvania ranks seventh nationally in this trend, with more than 164,000 children living with their grandparents, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Aging."I could write three more books on this area," says Elaine K. Williams, author of "The Sacred Work of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. "It's a complex problem and it's a growing problem."What really strikes me is how little people know about this. It is a remarkable phenomenon that's going on."Often, the adult kids are too emotionally or financially troubled to raise children. Many of the parents have mental or physical health issues, including drug and alcohol addiction. Sometimes, grandparents become parents when their son or daughter gets in trouble with the law and goes to prison. At other times, tragedy from a parent's death forces grandparents back into the custodial role.The situation can be either temporary or permanent. Temporary situations usually involve parents losing a job or a home and having financial problems, or when a military member is deployed overseas. Sometimes, a teenage pregnancy with a girl not ready to be a capable parent can put grandparents in a long-term parenting role.Rebecca Harvey, assistant professor and program director for Marriage and Family Therapy at Seton Hill University, has counseled many grandparents facing the major life change of taking on a parental role again."It's very common, and increasingly common," she says. "Families, in general, in our culture are changing dramatically, so the makeup of families is increasingly diverse."Williams interviewed about 60 grandparents for her book, published last year by Balboa Press. Many grandparents interviewed told Williams that their friends, neighbors and even family members were upset that they had taken on the parenting role, and think it's too much for the grandparents. The senior years aren't supposed to be for child-rearing, Williams says. Over time, friendships can fade as the grandparent becomes consumed by the new role. Meanwhile, the grandparents often are coping with grief about their child's situation.Williams asked the people she interviewed -- including an 85-year-old and a 39-year-old -- how they do this."They all give the same answer: One day at a time," she says. The grandparents say, 'These kids are my blood. I have to do it.' "As for the kids, the ones Williams interviewed carry a burden from missing their parents, who can be dysfunctional and repeatedly hurt and break promises to the child. Children often will ask their grandparents why they have a parent out there somewhere who doesn't want them. It's heartbreaking, Williams says.Grandparents, typically, don't resent their grandchildren, but they can resent the parents who put them in the situation. Maybe they were planning on a relaxing, low-key, travel-filled and well-funded retirement -- and now, suddenly, they give it all up to become parents again. The financial stress of raising a child on a fixed income and the physical challenges of keeping up with children can be severe, Williams and Harvey say."It's often a great deal of strain for someone who's not used to the demands of having a young child," Harvey says. "Being in your 60s and 70s and dealing with a toddler is hard."Jeneen Jones, 47, of Lawrenceville, says her life isn't easy as the guardian of her granddaughter, Taja, 6. However, Taja brings her so much joy, Jones says, and her son and his girlfriend could not take care of Taja adequately. Although she has asthma and fibromyalgia, Jones says she manages to care of Taja, who made the honor roll, with the help of her daughter, Chaquishia Pack, 26. Pack lives with Jones along with Pack's son, Cameron, who will be 2 this month."I love Taja; I love her dearly," Jones says. "It doesn't bother me ... raising her. I'm glad we got to her when we did."I feel like she's in a better place," she says. "She doesn't even want for anything."One of the hardest parts about the new arrangement is both grandparents and kids adjusting to the shifting roles, Williams and Harvey say. Grandma and grandpa may have been the ones who spoil the kids -- with sweets, toys and bending of the rules -- but when they become mom and dad, they have to be the ones who dispense discipline.Kathy and Kevin Mackey of Leechburg have been raising their granddaughter -- Alex, 2 -- since she was just a month old, because their daughter could not care for her. The couple had been looking forward to their empty nest and building up their retirement fund, but, now, everything has changed. Kevin Mackey works as the pastor of Hebron Lutheran Church in Leechburg, and Kathy Mackey stays at home with Alex."It's not what we had planned on doing, but here it is," says Kathy Mackey, 51. She would get up several times a night to feed Alex when she was a baby, just as if she were a 20-something new mom. "It's scary to think how old we'll be when she's in high school. I don't even like thinking about those days, but I know they're coming."Although the Mackeys aren't ruling out a change with their daughter, if they have it their way, Alex will remain with them."We're the only parents she knows," Kathy Mackey says. "As far as she knows, this is the way it's supposed to be."She's the light of our life."

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