Karen Lewis has had a house full of children for much of her adult life. She has raised a daughter and two sons, taken care of a few grandchildren and opened her home to kids in the foster care system. That doesn’t even count the friends of her children and grandchildren who spent countless nights hanging out at her home.
“We used to joke that the house was body to body with teenage boys when we would get up on Saturday mornings,” Lewis said.
In many ways, then, it’s no surprise that Lewis and her husband, Jack, now are raising a 12-year-old.
The couple adopted their great-grandson Carter two years ago after raising him for eight years before that. When he was adopted, Carter’s father was losing custody of him and his mother wasn’t considered fit to care for him.
“We were the only ones in the family who could do it,” Lewis said. “We were the prime candidates for it.”
At 74 and 78 years old, the Lewises are part of a growing number of grandparents -- or in their case, great-grandparents -- who have been reintroduced to the world of childrearing later in life.
Nationwide, more than 2.5 million grandparents are raising a grandchild or grandchildren under age 18, often because a parent is unwilling or unable to do so, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report.
Instead of cruising around the Caribbean or golfing in Florida, these older adults are shuttling kids to soccer practice and attending PTA meetings.
“They have put their retirement on the backburner,” said Loriann McNeill, the family caregiver support program coordinator for the Aging, Disability and Veterans Services Division of the Department of County Human Services. McNeill works to help grandparents in Multnomah County identify services and resources to improve their parenting experience.
“They’ve dedicated themselves to ensuring the best success for these kids.”
That is often easier said than done. Parenting the second time around brings with it a unique set of challenges, McNeill said.
Grandparents raising grandchildren, for instance, can often have limited financial resources and physical health problems. Sometimes they feel embarrassment, anger or grief about their situation. Meanwhile, grandchildren, too, may suffer from a number of problems and health issues, like anger, depression, ADHD and trouble in school.
“Grandparents are so busy raising children ...washing clothes, carting kids around, just like any other parent that finding resources to address those issues is difficult,” McNeill said.
At this time of year, for example, the struggles for grandparents raising grandchildren include finding enough money to purchase school supplies and clothing. Multnomah County offers small grants to help cover some of those expenses.
The county also produces a retreat every May for grandparent caregivers. The all-day event offers educational sessions and resources, including connections with the Multnomah County Library, Oregon Food Bank and 2-1-1. In addition, the county supports seminars and support groups throughout the year that tackle other tough issues facing grandparent caregivers. With support from the county, the Hollywood Senior Center hosts the monthly Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group on the first Monday of each month at the Charles Jordan Community Center.
At the retreat and in the seminars, grandparents learn techniques for positive communication; strategies for healing children affected by prior trauma; tips for talking to grandchildren about sexual health; how to advocate for a grandchild’s health and mental health; and how to work with schools when a child has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
It was through a seminar that Lewis learned that some of Carter’s behavioral issues could be attributed to his diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome.
“We’ve had some really rough days. It was frustrating for a long time because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know how to help him and now we do,” Lewis said. “After the seminar, we took the materials, made copies of it and brought it to his school. Maybe by giving them the information, it will help them, too.”
Raising Carter now gives special meaning to National Grandparents Day, which falls on Sept. 11 this year, Lewis said.
“It was meant for us to be here for Carter and to take care of him and get him on the road to a good life,” Lewis said. “It’s been a challenging road, but it’s been a great road. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”