Sandra Kobrin

Madelyn Dunham, 85, passed away Nov. 3, one day after her birthday and one day before her grandson, Barack Obama, stood for election as president. Before he went to visit her, Obama told ABC that he was praying for her health but she was gravely ill. “One of the things I want to make sure of is I had a chance to sit down with her and to talk to her. She’s still alert and she’s still got all her faculties. And I want to make sure that I don’t miss that opportunity,” he said. Last week Sandra Kobrin wrote about caretaking grandmothers in this commentary inspired by Dunham.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Last week Sen. Barack Obama took time off from the final heat of the campaign to visit his ailing grandmother.

Or at least that’s how news reports depicted it.

I saw something else.

As I looked at the photos of him getting off the airplane, with head sadly bowed, I saw an image that moved me more than any speech.

When Obama was in his teens, his mother wanted to stay in Indonesia. So his grandmother and grandfather brought him to live with them in Hawaii and sacrificed to send him to the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu. He’s never forgotten them and he pays generous tribute to his grandmother, in particular, saying she “put everything she had into me.”

Now that she’s near the end of her life, their grandmother-child relationship provides a poignant national reminder of what’s going on in a growing number of households.

Just as in Obama’s family, many grandparents these days are struggling to provide for their young ones. Often they are on fixed incomes and the addition of a child makes money even tighter.

Almost one-fifth of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren live in poverty.

Rising Numbers

Thirty years ago Obama’s relationship with his grandparents might have been unusual, but today it is being retold by a rising number of families.

More than 4.5 million children in the United States are living in grandparent-headed households–a 30 percent increase from 1990–according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Unfortunately, the data is not broken down by gender, so we can only imagine, given women’s greater longevity, how many more of these caretaking elders are women. Another 1.5 million children are living in households headed by other relatives.

Rising parental drug and alcohol use, mental illness, incarceration, abuse and abandonment are some of the reasons that more and more grandparents–and grandmothers in particular–are having to re-fluff their nests, says Sylvie DeToledo, co-founder of a Los Angeles-based group called Grandparents as Parents and author of the 1995 book “A Survival Guide for Raising a Second Family.”

“There has been a huge increase in the number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the past 20 years and the trend is going to continue,” she said. “Grandparents will often put their own lives on hold so that their grandchildren can stay in their care even if it means maxing out credit cards and taking out loans.”

More Pressure Signs

The fact that the economy is in trouble can only add to the growing number of grandparents raising children, as parents face additional pressure. Problems with alcohol and drug abuse among parents may increase and will likely push the number of incarcerated parents in the United States to new peaks. In July 2007 over 2.3 million people were in prison. Over 115,300 were women, many of whom are mothers.

In one state–New York–1 in 12 children lives in households headed by grandparents or other relatives.

Four years ago New York Sen. Hillary Clinton put some hope on the horizon by introducing the Kinship Caregiver Support Act. It promptly bogged down. But if the partisan tide shifts in Washington it just might move ahead.

The bill requires authorities to notify adult grandparents and other adult relatives–with exceptions due to family violence–when a child is removed from the custody of a parent or parents. It also requires authorities to explain the options that relatives have to participate in the child’s care and placement.

It provides federal assistance to subsidized states’ guardianship programs and makes it possible for kinfolk to receive the same subsidy a foster family would receive. Currently, relatives are barred from that subsidy.

Tantrums and Red Tape

A caretaker of any age faces a variety of challenges. There are tantrums, bad TV habits, fussy eaters. For non-parents there is often sticky red tape outside the home: on school enrolment procedures, medical treatment, public housing leases, affordable legal services and access to federal benefits and services.

On top of all that, raising children is so time-consuming and emotionally absorbing that it often displaces contact with friends and neighbors and leads to forgoing all kinds of social options. A night out, after all, has to pass that crucial test of being worth the cost of a babysitter who can charge between $7 and $15 an hour.

Amid all this, grandparents face unique issues.

The loss of social contact that often comes with parenting is particularly acute for older people who are already slowing down some of their social lives due to the medical and health consequences of aging.

Raising grandchildren often strains a long-term marriage when often one or both parties have looked forward for many years to retirement. Grandparents also find themselves out of phase with changing trends in parenting standards. Some have to navigate the complexities of juvenile court. Many grandparents are simply not emotionally and financially prepared for a second go-round as primary caregivers.

Government help to grandparents raising kids has been slow in coming. Let’s hope it’s finally near at hand. It would be a real way for Obama, if elected, to honor the woman he says gave him her all.

Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles writer and columnist.

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