Editorial: Elders cope with caring for grandchildren 

  • Patricia Harrington holds a photo of her grandson, Brandon Bourque, at her home in Greenfield, on Nov. 17, 2016. She began raising him when he was a few months old. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/2/2016 11:35:54 PM

Much attention has been focused in recent years on the alarming rise in the number of people addicted to opioids. Rightly so, those involved in health care and law enforcement have focused their efforts on responding to the dangers of overdosing and helping addicts find treatment.

But in the background of this epidemic is a group of older people, parents of those struggling with drug problems, who have stepped in to take on a job they never dreamed they would be doing in their 50s, 60s and 70s — assuming the care of their grandchildren.

Statewide, 10,000 people are raising their grandchildren, according to the state’s Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Over the past five years, there has been a 17 percent increase in grandparents raising grandchildren throughout Massachusetts and about 80 percent of these cases involve drug abuse by at least one of the parents.

Drugs aren’t the only reason grandparents are pressed into full-time child care — death, illness and domestic abuse are also on the list — but they are a big one. The struggles of these grandparents should be among the priorities for the social service professionals who are rallying to address the opioid crises.

Stretching what in some cases is limited retirement income, or for those still working, gleaning child-care funds from their paychecks — along with money to cover many other added expenses — these people are spending their later years much differently than their peers.

With the decreased energy and increased ailments that often accompany aging, it’s hard keeping up with energetic — and sometimes troubled — youngsters. Yet these grandparents are quietly doing what love and responsibility compel them to do. And while there is some state help for them, more support is needed, particularly with child care — both full care for those still working and respite care for those just needing an occasional break.

For those whose grandchildren were removed from their parents’ home by the Department of Children and Families, there are stipends available. But many of these families fear DCF and have done their best to avoid its involvement in the children’s lives, and thus they are not eligible for that financial help.

For those just seeking a short breather from child-care duties, the state offers to put the child in foster care briefly — a choice many, not surprisingly, find unappealing.

The Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, created in 2008, has a website, www.massgrg.com, where resources are listed. But many older people lack computer savvy and finding assistance without the internet is difficult.

Through the nonprofit The United ARC of Turners Falls, Pat Keith of Cummington, who spent some years raising her grandchild, has been working to organize support groups throughout Hampshire and Franklin counties. She has succeeded in launching four, and some of those who attend say it is a relief to share their troubles — and joys — with peers.

Still, grandparents interviewed by Gazette reporter Lisa Spear say they have struggled to get help.

For many, life changed suddenly, with no time to prepare. Many have lost jobs due to day-care issues, friends who can no longer relate to them and money they had saved for retirement. They have often had to face alone the emotional and complicated legal terrain of custody issues. They deserve support.

The Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren has been holding meetings around the state, including a forum in Greenfield earlier this fall, to listen to people in these circumstances and determine how the state can do better by them. We are happy to see that. We hope that these well-intentioned officials compile their findings swiftly and take the necessary steps to help. We also call on our legislators to act on those recommendations to ease the burdens on these families.

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