Raising grandkids an extra burden

CHICAGO — The joy of grandparenting comes at a price for Dave and Nora Dacus, like many others who step up when a child's parents can't or won't.

From changing diapers to footing the tuition bills for Catholic school, the Dacuses have been on duty for 6-year-old Ethan virtually his entire life.

"You get tired," said Nora, 78, of Bourbon, Mo. "But you just do it. ... I wouldn't have seen him go anywhere else." The couple are among an estimated 2.5 million U.S. grandparents responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchildren who live with them, according to the Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey.

All face a challenge that can be financially and physically taxing. Providing a safety net for children who might otherwise face harsher fates is a tough task which can be even harder for those living on fixed incomes in retirement or those who were counting on money from their remaining working years for other purposes.

On Grandparents Day this Sunday, it's worth noting that the tradition of grandparents raising grandchildren has cherished roots in this country — George and Martha Washington raised their grandchildren at Mount Vernon, as grandparent advocate groups like to point out.

"Grandparents tend to be the saviors of both first and last resort," said Jerry Shereshewsky, chief executive of Grandparents.com. "People turn to them when things are bad an awful lot."

What's changed in recent decades is the increased complexity of family problems that experts say has contributed to a roughly 30 percent jump since 1990 in the number of children being raised by grandparents — currently about 3.7 million. In addition, grandparents live longer and are healthier than previous generations, and often are in better financial shape to take charge.

The circumstances that draw grandparents to second parenthood today vary widely and include substance abuse, teen pregnancy, divorce, child abuse and neglect, mental illness and incarceration of a parent.

Usually there's little or no time to make meaningful financial preparations in advance.

"It impacts the grandparents at a time in their lives when they should be saving for retirement, and instead they're depleting their resources to take care of the children," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a national lobbying and information organization.

While older Americans are on average much better off than a few decades ago, a large number of grandparent caregivers still struggle to get by. Generations United says some literally have to choose between buying prescription medications or diapers with their money.

Many are low-income or minorities. Some 477,000 grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren have income that puts them below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data from 2006. The median income for grandparent-led households with a grandchild but no parent was just $31,405.

Yet the issue crosses demographic boundaries. "Some people think it's just an inner-city, African-American grandmother issue, and it's not," Butts said.

The Dacuses don't have a lot of money and manage on Social Security and two company pensions. But they couldn't stand by when great-grandson Ethan appeared headed for a foster home as an infant. Born prematurely and under 4 pounds, he needed round-the-clock care for months, and his mother — their granddaughter — was single and unemployed and not up to the job.

None of their seven children wanted to raise him — "They all work and have families of their own," explained Nora, a retired supermarket manager. So Dave, now 73, a retired maintenance supervisor at Emerson Electric Co., converted the basement of their two-bedroom ranch home into a playroom and they took him in as their own.

Now their seventies are dominated by child care. Trips and other indulgences are rare. The couple says they can't afford them in the face of $2,600-a-year school tuition, clothes and other child costs, and they want to save their time, energy and money for Ethan anyway.

"It does change your life," Nora said. "We don't get to put our feet up. But he's just ours. I can't think of a day without him." Elizabeth Reinsch, human development specialist at University of Missouri Extension, says grandparents 55 and over are eligible for some modest financial assistance from the Family Caregiver Act. But legal and emotional issues may prevent them from getting it.

Many grandparents delay going through the legal system to get custody or avoid it altogether, thinking or hoping their duties will be only temporary, she said. Without a custodial relationship to the child, they can't get any assistance.

That's the case with the Dacuses, who looked into adopting Ethan but decided not to proceed for fear they would be rejected as too old, thus relegating the boy to foster care.

Grandparents may run up substantial legal tabs, especially if they encounter resistance from the child's parents or need to prove neglect or abandonment. One couple in Utah estimated spending $12,000 on attorneys, including one who specialized in juvenile law and another on an estate plan attorney to help them craft a will and trust incorporating their grandchild.

With or without financial help, experts say it's essential that those raising grandchildren find a support group.

"I've seen grandparents attend a support group for the first time and be in tears because they thought they were alone until that moment," said Reinsch, who coordinates the Gateway Grandparents/Kinship Network, a coalition of groups in the St. Louis area working to support grandfamilies.

The Dacuses will mark Grandparents Day this weekend by attending a picnic held by the Gateway group — and by working to care for Ethan, as always.

"They are doing a phenomenal job," said Reinsch, citing their energy. "They're a shining example of what grandparent caregivers can be."

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