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Article posted: 10/31/2013 1:00 AM

Grandparents raising grandchildren on the rise

By Tara García Mathewson

Michael McMeins and his wife, Kathy, took the first solo vacation of their married lives back in 2004. They were just reaching the point where their children were pretty much old enough to take care of themselves.

As they sat in a group of other similarly aged adult couples, they listened to music and discussed plans for their retirement. They talked of the trips they'd take and when. Then Michael got a call that his daughter, Danielle, was in the hospital. By the end of that year, the McMeinses had taken in two of their grandchildren.

And their futures had changed dramatically.

The phenomenon of grandparents raising grandchildren is not necessarily new. But the Illinois Department on Aging says the practice has increased dramatically in the last 25 years.

The U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey found that more than 275,000 grandparents are living with their grandchildren in Illinois. Nearly 100,000 of them claimed responsibility for their grandchildren, and nearly 40,000 had been responsible for them for five years or more.

"The day we stepped into it, we said, OK, there will be no cruises," Michael remembered. "There will be no three-month vacations. We probably won't be buying a home in Florida like the rest of the group our age.'"

He and his wife also had to restructure their retirement income to leave enough to cover college tuition for Olivia, who is now 9. Andrew, Olivia's brother, died in 2011 after a short life as a quadriplegic with a brain-size deficiency, cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder.

Now as the McMeinses continue their second round of parenting with Olivia, they do so for a little girl who must grapple with the deaths of her mother and brother. And, unfortunately, that type of emotional hardship is not uncommon for children being raised by their grandparents.

Kelly Reid, a social worker at Metropolitan Family Services -- DuPage, leads a support group on the second and fourth Mondays of the month for relatives raising relatives, which often means grandparents. Reid said many of the children have special needs because of trauma they've experienced, be it emotional or physical. They also may have issues with their physical health, like Andrew did, requiring special care.

Pat, a woman who lives in Glenbard Township, attends the monthly meetings while raising her three grandchildren. She, like several grandparents contacted for this story, preferred not to have her last name in the paper, in this case to avoid renewing contact with her daughter. Pat and her husband have had their grandkids for about eight years. The oldest just turned 19, and her twins are 11.

Pat's daughter was evicted and moved the children around until they all started living with the DuPage County couple in 2005. The hope was Pat's daughter would get a job, get back on her feet and move her family out. When that didn't happen and she became increasingly unreliable and absent, Pat and her husband decided to seek legal guardianship of their grandchildren to give them some stability.

Pat and her husband, both in their late 60s, have needed to adjust to their new circumstances. Her husband retired with 42 years of service just three months after their grandchildren moved in. Their plans to travel disappeared.

"A lot of things change when you raise your grandchildren," Pat said. "And then your friends don't understand you're back to babyhood stuff. You can't just drop everything and go out to dinner. You have to plan ahead."

The first time around, young moms and dads often have their own parents to go to for help. Their peers are facing similar situations. They have plenty of potential baby sitters on all sides. Not so as grandparents.

At the school level, grandparents often feel ostracized for being so much older than the rest of the people at the open houses and events. The school fees sometimes hit fixed-income couples harder.

But the grandparents raising grandchildren support groups, besides offering solidarity, aim to connect these adults with resources they need.

Pat found out her grandson's high school would waive his school fees, including expensive driver's education. She also was referred to Prairie State Legal through the Metropolitan group and received help in the fight for guardianship.

In Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, a "grandparents raising grandkids" support group launched during the 2012-13 school year. At one meeting, school officials helped grandparents set up email addresses to better communicate with their grandchildren's teachers.

Turnout this year has been low, but group organizer Joan McGarry said programs about parenting skills, math literacy and Common Core curriculum standards are planned for the third Monday of the month through the end of 2013 if people continue to come.

Raising kids once is hard. Rising to the challenge of starting all over again is often harder. And, unfortunately, it is only extreme circumstances that bring parents to give up custody of their children or have it taken away -- sometimes that means death, deportation, severe substance abuse or mental health issues.

That's when grandparents step in.

"In many ways, they're heroes," said Reid, of Metropolitan Family Services. "They've often given up their own goals and aspirations for the time of life that they're in to do something different. It has its own rewards as well, but I think they're really heroes."

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