Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1

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Grandparents Fill the Gap

by Yolanda Johnny Taylor

Editor’s Note: Pat and Jerry Jones are dedicated leaders in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Pat has served on the National Board and is president of the Tennessee Valley Parents of Blind Children. Both Pat and Jerry have assisted with national parent leadership training conferences—and they aren’t even parents of a blind child! So, why are they so involved in the organization? Here’s their inspiring story as reprinted from The Chattanooga Times, October 16, 1998.

 

Pat Jones is no different from anyone else rearing 11-year-old twin girls.

She divides her time between shuttling April and Amanda to horseback riding lessons and church choir rehearsals. Mrs. Jones is active in the PTA, lends a hand on school picture day and bakes for school fund raisers.

Mrs. Jones and her husband, Frank, reach across a generation to care for the girls, who were born blind. The grandparents have been the primary caretakers for the twins since they were first-graders.

“People think the stress level is because they are blind, but the stress is the twin part,” she said with a laugh. “The parents that had the seven kids I don’t envy at all.”

The Joneses are being swept along in one of America’s most pronounced demographic trends. According to a recent U.S. Census survey, there are 3.9 million children in America living in a grandparent-headed household. Of that number, 1.4 million of the children do not have a parent present, leaving the grandparents with full responsibility.

Photo of Pat Jones handing out clean laundry to be put away by her twin granddaughters, Amanda and April. It isn't from a visit.  The girls, who are in the seventh grade at Oolatewah Middle School, have been living with their grandparents for six years.

 

Pat Jones (right) hands out clean laundry to be put away by her twin granddaughters, Amanda (left) and April. The laundry isn’t from  a visit. The girls, who are in the seventh grade at Oolatewah Middle School, have been living with their grandparents for six years.

Over the last 25 years, the number of children being raised by someone other than parents has increased at an alarming rate. The spike is due, in part, to drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, teen-age parenting, incarceration, death of a parent, violence, HIV/AIDS, or the parents being physically or mentally unable to care for the child.

Communities across the United States have scrambled to respond to the growing needs of grandparents raising their grandchildren. The Association for the Advancement for Retired People made the issue a priority when it established the Grandparent Information Center, which is aimed at helping grandparents raise their grandchildren.

According to the Grandparent Information Center, the majority of grandparents raising grandchildren assumed the primary care giving role because of substance abuse by the parents (44 percent). Next was child abuse, neglect or abandonment (28 percent) followed by teen-age pregnancy or the parent being unable to handle the children (11 percent).

Donna McConnico of Family and Children’s Services of Chattanooga said the counseling center is handling more and more cases of grandparents raising their grandchildren. The center offers counseling and parenting classes for grandparents.

Ms. McConnico, the counseling center’s clinical coordinator, said parenting classes acquaint grandparents with new parenting techniques such as using time-outs instead of spankings as a punishment. She said the center also teaches grandparents how to communicate better with teachers and principals.

“Discipline is a major concern for grandparents,” she said. “It’s difficult for them to move out of the more permissive grandparenting role into the new parenting role. We help them learn to say no.”

Ms. McConnico said most grandparents express exhaustion over the change in their lifestyle and feel a loss of freedom. Many of the grandparents said they thought the child-rearing part of their lives would be over once they reached their 50s.

“But they don’t really question why they are doing it or get angry at their grandkids,” she said. “If anything, they get angry at their own children for being irresponsible.”

Senior Neighbors of Chattanooga Inc. is making an effort to reach out to parenting grandparents. The program received a seed grant for $10,000 this year to expand services to grandparents or other relatives who have become surrogate parents.

Joyce E. Drew of Senior Neighbors said they fret over practical problems. They wonder about financial support, who can legally enroll the child in school, or who will take them to doctors’ visits.

One grandmother asked how to get counseling for her grandchildren, and another wanted to learn about mentoring programs so her grandson could have a positive male role model. One grandparent wanted after-school tutoring for her grandchild. Ms. Drew said many local organizations including the Boys Club and Girl Scouts are helping Senior Neighbors fill these needs.

Ms. Drew said it surprised her how little the grandparents asked for once they discovered a few of the options open to them. Although many of the grandparents she spoke to were on fixed incomes, very few complained about the financial or emotional strain the new situation caused for them.

The grandparents instead wanted to know how they could make their existing situation better for their grandchildren.

As for Pat and Frank Jones, they had just put the last of their five children through school when the twins’ mother moved back into their house with her four children.

Picture of Pat Jones grocery shopping with the two 11-year-old girls.

Pat Jones grocery shops with the two 11-year-old girls.

 

Eventually the twins’ mother moved out with the two youngest children but left the twins with the Joneses so the twins wouldn’t have to change schools.

Mrs. Jones said the decision to raise them fulltime was not taken lightly.

“It was really hard at first,” she said. “We had to think about and pray about it for a long time. We kept asking ourselves if we were doing the right thing and if this is what we wanted for them and for us.”

But once the decision was made, the Joneses never looked back. They renovated their house and became active in support groups for parents raising blind children. They pored over books, searched the Internet, and talked to people to learn the options and resources available to them.

Now six years after the twins first entered her life and three years after she and her husband gained full custody of them, Mrs. Jones beams when she talks about “her girls.”    

 “The girls have taught me so much,” she said. “They taught me how to listen and how not to take things for granted. Now I take the time to really look at things, even if it is just a crack in the sidewalk.”

As a stay-at-home grandma, Mrs. Jones said she has more time to be actively involved with them. Yet, neither she nor her husband are trying to take the place of the girls’ parents.

“As grandparents we can love them as much as parents can, but we haven’t tried to make them feel like we are the parents,” she said. “We tell them they have a mom and dad, but we are their grandparents, and we always will be.”  

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