Refilling the nest: An increasing number of grandparents are raising their children’s children

  • Harrington says she can’t imagine what her life would have been like without Brandon though the years have been difficult. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patricia Harrington of Greenfield holds a photo of her grandson, Brandon, who she began raising when he was just a few months old. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Patricia Harrington holds a photo of her grandson, Brandon, at her home in Greenfield, Nov. 17, 2016. She began raising him when he was a few months old. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathleen Kenny of Greenfield, back, looks at books with her granddaughter Bella, 6, during a Nov. 19 visit to World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. Kenny is raising her granddaughter. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kathleen Kenny of Greenfield, left, looks at books with her granddaughter Bella, 6, during a Nov. 19 visit to World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. Kenny is raising her granddaughter. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kathleen Kenny of Greenfield, with her 6-year-old granddaughter Bella, above, at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, says since she began raising the child, her life her focus is on very different concerns than those of her peers. That, she says, has cost her some friends. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kathleen Kenny of Greenfield, left, looks at books with her granddaughter Bella, 6, during a Nov. 19 visit to World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. Kenny is raising her granddaughter. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2016 9:46:52 AM

When Patricia Harrington of Greenfield arrived at her son’s house to visit her grandchildren one day, she was dismayed by what she found.

Four-month-old Brandon was alone in a bathroom in the basement, sitting in a car seat, wailing. His parents, who were upstairs in the living room tending to the two older children, told her they were expecting the whir of the bathroom fan to quiet the infant.

The couple, Harrington said, were overwhelmed by personal and financial problems and she could see it was time for her to step in.

“That’s when I asked if it would help if I took the baby for a while. He came home with me that night.”

Fifteen years later, Harrington, 73, who is divorced and has raised her own five children, still has custody of him.

“I thought at the time that it was going to be temporary,” she said.

Kathleen Kenny, 56, also of Greenfield, has had her granddaughter Bella for four of the six years of the girl’s life. She took the toddler home when the child’s mother, Kenny’s daughter, agreed to go into rehabilitation for drug addiction. Kenny, a divorced mother of three who works in customer service, still had her youngest child, a 20-year-old son, at home at the time.

“Nobody ever thinks that that is going to happen,” Kenny said in a recent interview at Energy Park in Greenfield as she watched 6-year-old Bella climb on a play structure. “There is no pamphlet or magic program that says, ‘Oh, this is where you can go for help.’ ”

Grandparents stepping up

Harrington and Kenny are two of some 10,000 people statewide who are raising their grandchildren. Some have taken over because their children can’t care for the kids due to financial difficulties, disabilities or a variety of personal problems — many of which are tied to opioid addiction, a rising crisis in Massachusetts.

Over the last five years there has been a 17 percent spike in grandparents raising grandchildren throughout the state and about 80 percent of these cases involve drug abuse by at least one parent, according to the state’s Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

That leaves many older people struggling not only to stretch retirement income to support an expanded household, but to care for young children with the decreased energy and physical ailments aging often brings.

To address this growing trend, the commission has been touring the state, holding forums to educate grandparents on available resources.

“It’s a really hard journey for these folks and the isolation that this creates can make them feel really alone,” said Pat Keith, a grandmother from Cummington who runs support groups in the area.

While there is help available in the form of financial assistance, respite care and support groups like Keith’s, many grandparents say it’s not easy to find.

The state Department of Social Services’ Kinship Care program offers up to $9,763 per year for housing and food to grandparents if children are taken from their parents’ homes by social workers due to abuse or neglect.

If grandparents need a few days’ break from child care responsibilities, the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) can place a child briefly in a foster home, an option many reject, finding it too disruptive for kids.

Some elders don’t use the internet, which limits their ability to find help, and there is no hotline they can call.

Difficult circumstances

Harrington says she can’t imagine the past 15 years without Brandon, but the experience has been hard. Her son and Brandon’s mother broke up, and the other children were raised by their mother. Harrington had to retire early from the social work job she loved because she couldn’t find day care that would accommodate the boy’s emotional and behavioral problems. She has gotten some financial help in the form of federal housing assistance.

She says she lost many of her friends due to her changed circumstances: “I was raising a baby and dealing with diapers and they were starting to think about end of life situations,” she said.

Kenny, too, finds her life focusing on issues that seem incongruous with her age.

She got her knees replaced not long ago, so she can’t take Bella ice-skating, one of the child’s favorite activities. But life is filled with play dates and birthday parties — not exactly what she pictured herself doing at 56.

“I do different things than a lot of my friends who don’t raise a 6 year old, but it’s good,” she said.

Kenny has been able to find good child care at the YMCA which her labor union at work helps pay for, so she didn’t have to give up her customer service position.

“I feel lucky because I have a good job, I have a decent income, I have a lot of friends and family support. Not everybody has that.”

She keeps up with Bella, a ball of energy with a crown of red curls framing her cherubic face, though she admits she gets tired.

“I have friends who are like, ‘Aren’t you exhausted?’ I suppose, but I suppose a lot of people are tired. I try not to dwell on being tired.”

Overall, she says, life is good. “The best part about it is the joy of having a young person in your life. We do a lot of fun things.”

The road has been rockier for Harrington.

As he became a teenager, Brandon’s problems were such that she predicted he would end up in the cross hairs of bullies when he entered high school. She made the difficult decision last year to send him to a residential school in Rutland.

At first Brandon would come home every weekend, she said, but, now, his father lost his house to foreclosure and is living with Harrington until he gets back on his feet. She said the father’s heroin addiction has put a halt to Brandon’s visits.

Harrington says she misses her grandson and is looking forward to having him back.

“It’s only temporary,” she said.

Support groups help 

Meanwhile, Harrington has found solace in support groups; she first joined one years ago when her friends started falling away. “The grandparents support group has been fantastic,” she said. “It gets me out of the house to be with adults.”

Pat Keith has been working with The United Arc in Turners Falls, a nonprofit that provides services to disabled people, to get groups going throughout Franklin and Hampshire counties. There are groups now in Greenfield, Huntington, Turners Falls and Williamsburg.

“There is support out there if they can carve out the time,” Keith said. She added that she is available to take calls from grandparents who might not be able to make the regular sessions and is happy to meet with them individually. She is also willing to pick up grandparents who don’t drive or have transportation. And, if they call in advance, grandparents can get child care at the meetings.

Kenny has sought out some counseling on her own, but, she says, caring for Bella and the two-hour roundtrip commute to her job in Springfield leaves her with little time for much else.

And while she says she doesn’t always do everything right, she does the best she can, and Bella tends to just go with the flow.

“You need to be in a good place because you are raising a whole new person and you want them to be happy and healthy and enjoy things that children enjoy,” Kenny said. “I don’t want her to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at

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