Feb. 21, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Ten years ago, Beulah Benson could dispense with the drudgery of housework in a matter of hours. Now the 65-year-old cleans a room a day in her modest South Los Angeles home. The slower schedule is crucial if Benson is going to conserve enough energy for a more important responsibility: rearing her 10-year-old granddaughter.
"I always thought I would have the same energy I always did, but the older you get, you realize you don't," says Benson, who single-handedly juggles a part-time job, household duties, and the feeding, dressing, taxiing, and parenting of her learning-disabled granddaughter. "I've had to reprogram myself to conserve the energy I have."
One of Many
Benson is one of millions of grandparents nationwide who, because of their own children's death, illness, incapacitation, or neglect have taken over the upbringing of their grandchildren. According to the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), nearly 4 million children in the United States, or 6%, live with their grandparents. And for more than a quarter of those, nana and bumpa (and frequently just nana) are their sole caregivers.
Researchers have begun focusing on the phenomenon's health effects on grandparents. Parenting can be stressful and taxing for any adult, but two recently published studies conclude that for grandparents, child rearing can be an extra heavy burden.
According to a study published in September 1999 in the American Journal of Public Health, grandparents who parent had more problems negotiating day-to-day activities than grandparents without custodial obligations. The study surveyed more than 3,300 noncustodial and 173 caregiving grandparents about activities such as moving about the home, climbing stairs, walking six blocks, and handling household chores. The grandparents who parent might have had more trouble, the researchers speculate, simply because they were exposed to their limitations more often as a result of their child care roles.
The findings are no surprise to Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D., one author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Family and Community Medicine -- especially since nearly three quarters of caregiving grandparents began raising their grandkids at infancy or preschool age. "That's a really physically demanding time," Fuller-Thomson says.
Benson sometimes hits her limit. During a recent trip to Disneyland, she had to catch her breath after a turn on what she thought would be a relatively tame ride. ''It was foolish for me to get on that thing,'' she says. ''What if I had had a heart attack?''
Bringing up grandkids can take a psychological toll as well. According to a study in the November 1999 issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences evaluating nearly 1,800 grandparents, depression is more common among grandmothers who parent than those who don't, but not so among caregiving grandfathers. But overall, the researchers note, the effects on well-being they found were relatively small. One factor causing depression among grandmothers who mother is their tendency to focus more on the needs of their grandchildren than on their own physical and emotional health, says Lillian Carson, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., a Santa Barbara psychotherapist. Isolation plays a role, too, she says, because these grandmothers may feel separated from friends whose lives are very different.
Solutions for the Stress
To reduce stress and stay healthy, keep up a schedule of regular medical checkups and ask your doctor for stress-reduction tips such as getting regular exercise. Ask about assistive devices such as motorized stair chairs and canes. Consider hiring a baby-sitter for a few hours a week.
Take advantage of resources tailored to grandparents who parent. AARP's Grandparent Information Center, (202) 434-2296, provides information along with referrals to 650 support groups. One member is Emma Belluomini, 62, who is raising her five-year-old great-granddaughter in a small Northern California town with her husband, Paul, 67. Group members have been supportive as the Belluominis have grappled with the decision of when and how to tell the little girl, who has never seen her parents, that her natural parents did not want the responsibility of raising her.
"We know that we are going to have to let her know what happened," Emma Belluomini says. "We're pretty scared about that. We don't want it to change her or affect her. She is such a happy child." With the group, she's sure they'll find an effective solution. Like other grandparents who parent, Belluomini has learned there is strength in numbers -- and workable solutions if she reaches out.
Stephen Gregory has been a journalist for 10 years and has worked for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and U.S. News & World Report.