Most parents expect to raise their kids at a time in their lives when they have ample energy and means to do so. What happens when a parent suddenly can’t fulfill their parental responsibilities—due to failing health, drug addiction, military deployment, or incarceration—and grandparents must step in to provide full-time care for their grandchildren?
Rob and Michelle Ronden (not their real names), found themselves in that position approximately five years ago. When their daughter failed to show up for a drug addiction recovery program, they knew she was incapable, at that point, of taking care of their three grandchildren. “She called and said she just couldn’t do it,” said Michelle. “So that left the kids with us.”
To say Michelle and Rob had to make changes in their lifestyle would be an understatement. They were retired and enjoying traveling, socializing, and freedom from previous responsibilities. “We had some years ago of flying around and enjoying traveling. That was really cool. We were both very involved in a social group and other fun stuff. And that changed,” said Michelle.
At the time they started raising their grandkids, they were living in an adult community, with a resident minimum age of 55. So once their grandkids moved in, they had to sell their home and find a neighborhood with no age restrictions. “It took a long time to sell. We sold at a loss, of course, because of the timing. We just kind of existed for a while. I think it took a while for us to get into the swing of things,” said Michelle.
For consistency’s sake, they kept the grandchildren at the same elementary school after they moved. Five years into their grandchild-raising role, the oldest child is now in middle school, so the logistics of picking them up and dropping them off has now become more complicated. “Rob is the driver. So he drops the oldest one off a little before 8, comes back for the other two and takes them to them to school.”
Paying for all the school supplies, clothes, food and extras needed by three growing children, has also taken a toll. “We’ve been working for the last five years on getting our finances straightened out. It’s a slow process, that has required a financial advisor and saying no a lot,” said Michelle.
The couple receives about $800 month from a federal assistance program called Temporary Aid to Needy Families, which can provide benefits to persons caring for a relative’s child, acting in the place of a parent or serving as a legal guardian.
Classes specifically designed to help provide support in situations where children are living full time with their grandparents or other relatives have been very helpful to the Rondens. “[Taking the classes] is the only way we’ve survived,” said Michele. “The support and being with other people going through what we have has been invaluable. And it’s good for the kids to see other kids in the same situation at the group’s holiday parties, summer picnics, and other get-togethers.”
Fortunately, Michelle, who is her mid-sixties, has plenty of energy, and always has. But even she has limitations. She doesn’t like going to night events after rising at 5:30 or 6:00 am and putting in a full day, and is careful, before embarking on field trips with the kids, to ask how strenuous they might be.
For all the challenges of raising three children during their “golden years,” the Rondens do see an upside to having been intimately involved in the children’s lives. “We’ve gotten to watch the kids grow all these years, and see the results of our hard work,” said Michelle.
In the meantime, the Ronden’s daughter has been getting her life together. She successfully completed a long-term recovery program, found a type of work she enjoys and excels at, and has been a constant presence. “We are very proud of what she’s been doing,” said Michelle. “And she sees the children almost daily.”
Michele believes the best next step for the family would be to find a place large enough for her daughter to move in and help out even more—an intergenerational living arrangement. Currently, buying another house large enough to accommodate all of them is not financially feasible, but it’s a dream Michelle isn’t willing to relinquish.
“I have to visualize it, and then I have to work on it. I am looking forward to moving in together, and having my daughter take over more of the discipline, with us just being there to go to games, take them to school and doctor’s appointments—the backup stuff. But for now, [fulfilling the parental role] is our norm.”
For more information on grandparents raising grandchildren, go the hot topics section on pages 6 and 7 of the July Sonoma Seniors Today.