Grandparents Step Up for Second Act
Sometimes, when life challenges pile up on the path you’re traveling, the only thing to do is change course and learn to laugh.
Carla Lehrer encountered that pile not long after she thought she had retired. She’d created a lifestyle she could sustain with occasional caregiving jobs and monthly Social Security income of about $700. It was a modest life with a rented room in a private Eugene home but it satisfied Lehrer and freed her to ponder options for community volunteer work.
“I was thinking I needed to get involved with something,” she recalls. “I wasn’t quite wanting a full-time 24-7 volunteer job.”
But full time is what she got with a phone call on Christmas Eve two years ago. Lehrer drove to Lebanon that night in 2015 and picked up two grandsons who had been living with their father and grandfather. The father had been jailed, cited on a number of offenses.
”It was an ugly situation,” she says. Drugs, alcohol, and physical violence. The boys slept on the living room floor. Their mother, Lehrer’s daughter, had divorced the father and moved out of state with a new partner after the family became homeless in the economic fallout of drug abuse that governed their lives.
Lehrer moved the two boys—Ryley, now 14, and Kota, now 10—into her rented room, with the homeowner’s blessing. For six months, the three of them huddled together in one bed.
“The boys were so traumatized they wouldn’t go into another room,” she says. “Hearing their stories I realized I was probably going to have these boys for the rest of their growing up years. I pray everyday that one of the parents gets it together but realistically, I just don’t know.”
For Lehrer and millions of Americans, grandparenthood isn’t at all what they expected. They, too, have become victims of the nation’s growing opioid crisis.Census figures from 2012 report that 2.7 million grandparents in the United States are raising grandchildren. The trend has been steadily upward for 40 years.
"You Step Up because there's a Need"
Pat Cummings had raised two children and returned to work as a special needs teacher for Lane Education Service District when she and her husband became statistics in the grandparenting trend.
“You step up because there’s a need,” the Springfield woman says. “You don’t imagine how that will affect your life in the long run.”
Cummings and her husband gained legal guardianship of their son’s two-year-old daughter 12 years ago when the child’s parents were jobless and homeless, foundering in drug-addled incompetence.
“It’s this opiate crisis we have,” Cummings says. “That’s how it is affecting families. It’s very real.”
The plan, 12 years ago, was the grandparents would care for Sophia, now 14, for one year while her parents entered drug treatment.
“We felt he would outgrow the drug abuse and somewhere down the road he would take over again,” she says.
Cummings took early retirement from her position at Lane ESD to grapple with “sandwich generation” responsibilities for her own aging mother and a hyperactive toddler, since diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Trips to the grocery store with her aging mother teetering behind a shopping cart and her granddaughter racing through the aisles were fraught with stressful challenges.
“I’m a special needs teacher so I knew what needed to be done,” she says. “ADHD is a neurological disorder. Sophia finds breaks in routine very hard. She has a lot of anxiety. It’s exhausting some days.”
Strength to sustain these responsibilities, she says, comes from the family’s strong Christian faith and rock-solid support from her husband, Bruce, now retired from Eugene Fire Department.
“My husband and I work really well together,” Cummings says. “It’s huge that we work so well as a team.”
Cummings’ mother is no longer living but their son’s deteriorating health has made him, as well, somewhat dependent on his parents and has established that neither he nor the child’s mother will resume a parenting role.
“We thought this was temporary. We just expected her parents would one day take her back. That was our hope. Now, we realize they are not able to parent her.”
With the duration of the arrangement growing clear, Cummings was receptive six years ago when she saw a newspaper notice for a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren workshop at the Eugene Public Library.
Laughs with other Grandparents Help
The workshop led her to a twice-monthly sharing circle at Eugene’s Center for Community Counseling where she has met Carla Lehrer and other grandparents eager for the camaraderie of fellow travelers on the path.
“It’s a place where people want to hear your story,” Cummings says. “We laugh a lot and we learn skills for self-help and connection with people that understand the situation.”
Carolyn Benedict, MSW, facilitates the grandparenting group on the first and third Tuesday mornings at the counseling center. The group, she says, is a survival tool for struggling grandparents.
“Basically, most of the reasons why this happens is due to parental substance abuse, child neglect or abusive parents,” Benedict says. Other causes may be parent incarceration, mental or physical disabilities.
“These are things that are hiding in the shadows when grandparents take on these responsibilities,” she says. “In this group, they are holding one another’s hands. Family members and friends do not understand the stress.”
The support group, Lehrer agrees, is “seriously, a wonderful thing. All of our stories are different but all the same. Some are in different economic levels but we are all in the same boat.”
As a single grandparent, Lehrer relies on the support group and on a circle of friends for the emotional and financial stability she needs to raise two boys alone. Both boys are in school, bucking the educational scars of their early years.
As it became clear she’d be parenting her grandsons long term, Lehrer appealed to state services and to her friends.
“I can use any help I can get,” she acknowledges. By supplementing Social Security payments with a modest state cash allotment, food stamps and financial gifts from friends, she moved into an apartment, shared with a single mom and her child. Someday, she hopes that she and the boys can afford an apartment of their own.
“I think the boys and I are blessed to have one another. The boys are a challenge, but I feel blessed. It scares me everyday, heaven forbid, something should happen to me.
"The saddest thing about being their ‘mom’ is that I don’t get to be their grandma,” she says. “I miss that. It changes the relationship so much. But I think in life, when your hand is dealt, you just have to play it.”
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.