New Orleans has not been spared the growing trend of grandparents raising grandchildren and the challenges that come with this new family dynamic.
At 71, Ruby Smith hadn’t planned on raising her four great-grandchildren. Yet, when her granddaughter became pregnant at a young age, she saw a need and selflessly offered her help. Now at 84, Ruby still cares for her two oldest great-grandchildren full-time, Kiya, 12, and Neshell, 10.
“I have realized that my age and my health is not number one,” she says. “I can not take the responsibility of the other two because I don’t have the support.”
The youngest of the four, who are seven and eight, only live with Ruby for part of the week in her Columbia Parc apartment, a mixed-income complex in Gentilly.
Ruby is a diabetic, a disease that claimed her younger sister’s life a year ago. Before she died, her sister was able to help Ruby with her great-grandchildren, easing some of the physical and financial strain. Now she relies on several social workers around the city who provide uniforms and winter coats for the children.
Ruby receives $15 a month in food stamps and five pounds of grits every three months. Good Samaritans from the community have stepped in and donated presents during Christmas. Still, the situation can be emotionally taxing on her.
“I don’t worry about nothing for myself, but I do worry about the children,” she says.
A Growing Trend
According to recent census research, there are 2.7 million grandparents nationwide raising their grandchildren with one-fifth of those falling below the poverty line. Louisiana is fourth in the nation. Jenni Evans, a parent educator with The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, has been seeing this upward trend for many years.
“If grandparents are raising grandchildren, there has probably been some kind of stress or trauma in the family,” she says.
There are a host of reasons why this is happening, from incarceration to mental illness to death. There are close to one million children being raised by grandparents due to the opioid epidemic, Jenni adds.
Regardless of the exact reasons, being the sole providers of their children’s children comes with its challenges across the board. “There’s a huge demand on your energy,” she says. “Your routine and your schedule have to completely adjust to young children.”
Additionally, parenting has changed over the years and there is a lot of new information on screen time, seat belt safety, and nutrition. Thinking back, Smith finds that things were a lot simpler when she was growing up and going to school.
“Things are just so different,” she says.“We were really happy to get an apple at recess and I thought it was such a treat to go to school and get an apple, and sometimes we got peanut butter.”
Now, Ruby is barely able to pay for her own great-grandchildren’s school lunches.
By this point in her life, she had hoped to give Kiya and Neshell back to their mother. “The problem is, if I give them back, I know I would cry many days,” she says.
Ruby realizes that the limitations from her age and finances have not made this a perfect home for the children, but she feels it is better than the alternative. “The joy is that I feel like I have protected them from a lot.” she says.“I feel that I instill some good values in them and I am hoping and praying that I will be able to see them through the teenage years. God has blessed me.”
Despite these hardships, there are benefits for both the grandparents and the grandchildren who live in the same household. Research has shown children to be less ageist and less likely to be depressed as adults. Grandparents experience longevity which can be attributed to them staying mentally stimulated.
“The experience and the world that opens up when kids spend time with their grandparents is a huge benefit,” Jenni says. “It just makes their understanding more broad.”
Garden District resident Pam Ricciardi co-parents her three grandchildren with her daughter Andrea. Four years ago, Andrea realized that she needed help with raising her children and moved in with her mother.
Andrea has multiple sclerosis and suffers from debilitating bouts of fatigue. This is when Pam, who is 77, steps in and takes over the parenting duties. The oldest grandchild, Evan, is now attending LSU, but she stays busy with the two youngest, Jameson, 12, and Lillie, 6.
Pam lost her husband a year and a half ago to Lewy body dementia, which essentially freezes the body. It was important to the family that he had his three grandchildren living with him, she says, and the times that Lillie could sit in his lap were cherished.
“There was that support and me not being alone and dealing with losing the man who had been so vibrant, intelligent, and fun,” she says.“That man had disappeared, so it lessened that grief to have all of this joy.”
It wasn’t always smooth in the beginning. Pam admits that she had to learn to bite her tongue and allow her daughter to be the primary parent. When it comes to newer parenting concepts that she is less knowledgeable about, such as screen time, she lets her daughter decide the rules.
Support for Grandparent Parents
There are resources out there to help support and guide those grandparents raising their grandchildren alone. The Parenting Center offers a Grandparenting 101 class through Touro Hospital. While it is not designed specifically for grandparents raising their grandchildren, it is a good refresher course on developmental milestones and age-appropriate expectations of young children.
The center also has parent educators available by phone to give out practical tips that cover everything from potty training to snacks.
Kathy Coleman serves on the board of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Information Center of Louisiana, an organization out of Baton Rouge. They provide assistance and resources to this underserved population, including state-wide support groups. Its Baton Rouge group hosts over 20 grandparents. The organization also provides legal workshops.
“We are finding that these grandparents are having a hard time,” Coleman says.“They are struggling to pay their bills. They are getting burned out.”
Sarah Herndon is freelance writer and a regular contributor for Nola Family Magazine.