GREENVILLE — Almost 4.5 million American children are being raised by their grandparents, according to the U. S. Census Bureau. Since the percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren is even higher in South Carolina (4.6 percent of all households) than in the rest of the nation, Catholic Charities decided to do something about it.
“It’s such a big problem here, with the state at the top of the list, we could see that this is a population we needed to address,” said Franciscan Sister Margie Hosch, regional coordinator for the agency in the Upstate deanery.
Catholic Charities began addressing that population with a conference featuring speakers and organizations that can assist older folks with their new obligations of parenthood. These resources include doctors, lawyers, social service counselors, schools and hospitals.
Grandparents face many obstacles. They cannot legally register their grandchildren for school, and medical professionals will not treat them unless the guardians have legal custody of the children. Health insurance policies do not cover grandchildren and even pastors usually will not baptize children under age 7 unless they have assurances that the adult professing the faith for them is the one who officially represents their interests.
Yet grandchildren are often left with relatives without warning and without groundwork having been done.
“Without custody, you do not have legal rights,” said Delmar Percival, a widow raising three grandchildren in Greenville.
Percival participated in the first grandparenting conference and is a regular in a support group that meets monthly at Catholic Charities’ new building on Douthit Street. At the Feb. 12 meeting, the first function ever held in the building, the parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua spoke about the problems of raising a second family.
“I just want these kids to have some security in their lives, but financially this has wiped me out. I don’t even see retirement. I pray to God for the strength to carry on,” Percival said.
Money problems are compounded by diminishing energy levels in older guardians. Many of the grandchildren being raised by their grandparents have feelings of abandonment and other psychological problems, Sister Hosch said; many missing parents are not available for their own children because of drug addiction. These children need special attention, and they get it from their grandparents.
“I try to do mommy things with them, not grandma things,” Percival said.
“That grandchild has to be your priority,” said Mary Ann Coleman, a member of Brookville Community Church.
The support group was founded to help grandparents deal with their feelings, which often include a sense of helplessness and frustration.
“The problem is that you can’t control things,” Sister Hosch said.
National organizations and many internet sites, including AARP, the National Council on Aging and the federal Dept. of Health and Human Services, offer advice to help parenting grandparents, but none can assist with the trauma precipitated when a broken family deserts a child.
Grandparents sometimes have to resort to the legal system to force their own son or daughter to help pay for raising his or her child; they may have to fight for child support from fathers who are not married to the mothers of the children. They find themselves suddenly in carpools again and walking the sidelines of ballgames in the company of mothers less than half their age. They fear the ravages of age when they can least afford a letdown. They worry constantly about what will happen to the children if they should sicken or die.
Because of the stress caused by the extra work in what was supposed to be their golden years, and because of anxiety over what the future will hold for parents responsible for the upbringing of their children’s children, these grandparents must take special care of themselves, Sister Margie said.
“What are you going to do for yourself?” she asked the attendees at the Feb. 12 support group meeting. “You need to give to yourself because you are losing your grandparent years.”
Maybe they are losing their grandparent years and maybe they have a lot of worries, but the grandparents were not complaining about the hand they have been dealt. Each one professed to feeling blessed with the honor of caring for his or her grandchild. As one retiree said: “Maybe God is giving us a second chance at parenting, now that we’ve been through it once before.”
The second annual grandparenting conference will be held in September. Call Catholic Charities for information about it or about the support group (864) 242-2233.