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Grandparents raising grandchildren

Linda Aldrich was working as a bartender in October 1995 when she got a phone call from her son asking if she could take care of his 3-1/2-month-old daughter Ashley, a granddaughter Aldrich had never met. Her son wasn't just looking for a baby sitter; he wanted his mother to raise the child.

That year, Aldrich rearranged her life and joined an increasing number of grandparents who become "parents" to their own grandchildren. Nationally, 4.5-million children are living in grandparent-headed households; the number of such children increased 30 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census. In Washington, 61,905 children were living in grandparent-headed households in 2000.

These grandparents and the grandchildren they are raising face unique challenges that their peers may not understand. Many of the grandparents have retired friends who can't relate to raising a child so late in life and not being free to enjoy retirement. And the children attend school with many children who live with both of their parents.

But there is a place that grandparents and their grandchildren who are living in this type of situation can go where they aren't so different.

The Kinship Care Support Program at Encompass in Snoqualmie gives grandparents a chance to talk about issues and vent when they need to, but it also gives the kids something they can't find anywhere else.

"The kids come together and see that there arsupport manager for Encompass. "The kids count on it just as much as the adults."

The first time Christine (who asked that her real name not be used) took her granddaughter to the support group, the child looked around and saw all of the other kids calling the adults "Grandma" and said, "Oh Grandma, can we come back to this club again?"

"There's nothing like somebody who's been in it and really understands," Christine said. "They are isolated. There aren't other kids like them."

Christine, who lives in Redmond, went looking for a support group six or seven years ago because she recognized her granddaughter's need to be "supported in her difference." She ended up raising the girl because her daughter descended into mental illness and could no longer take care of her. Her daughter has since gotten her mental illness under control and is living a manageable life, but "by the time that came together, I had raised this child," Christine said. "This isn't a box of stuff I was taking care of and now there's a place to put it back."

All of the grandparents have different stories about why they are raising their grandchildren. Some are raising two or three children, while others care for just one. Many of them have dealt with drug or alcohol use by their children, and that's why they ended up in the parental role. Others deal with the mental illness of a child, like Christine has. But despite differences, these stories have a lot of similarities.

"We have each other; we're in the same boat," one grandmother said on a recent Monday night. The group meets on the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

Because of the age of many of the adults in the group, they often face everyday health issues.

"The chance of having a heart attack and dying is different than a situation as a parent in your 20s or 30s," Christine said. "You better believe grandparents think about it. You're facing your own mortality."

Christine said the age issue ups the intensity of the situation. A grandparent may be in the appropriate developmental stage to be thinking about dying someday, but there is still a child to raise.

"There is no fallback because you are the fallback," she said. "You are doing it because the other somebodies couldn't do it."

Another grandmother feels that because she is not as flexible as a younger parent might be, her grandchild often misses out on things. She said she can't just drop everything to take her child to a party or activity at the last minute.

Most of the children are bounced around visiting other grandparents or their mothers and fathers, if they are around. Their weeks are often planned out for them, leaving very little time for them to just be kids.

Christine's granddaughter has scheduled visitation with her father and it limits her opportunities to participate in other activities.

"When is she going to have a team sport or a lesson?" Christine asked. "She can't. She has no life. When does she get to do what she wants to do?"

Beymer said that because the children are bounced around between visiting their parents and other grandparents so much, the support group really gives them something they can count on for stability.

All of the grandparents in attendance at the recent meeting said the children would never let them miss a night. Aldrich said Ashley always gets excited and tells her when it is group night. Christine said her granddaughter has a very strong connection with one of the other children at the group.

"It is a really good fit for my kid," she said.

Beymer said Encompass put together some workbooks and the children talk about their feelings, draw and do team-building exercises. Many of the children are in therapy to deal with their losses.

Christine said her granddaughter used to "come unglued" when she would lose a toy when she was little.

"I finally realized it was loss. She was taking all the loss she experienced in her life and putting it into this lost little toy," she said. "These kids have a huge reserve of grief and loss."

The grandparents are dealing with loss, too, but don't always have time to think about it because they are busy raising their grandchildren and just coping with the day to day. The group meetings give them a chance to vent and talk about things that are hard for them. A lot of them have had to readjust their views on parenting because so much time has passed since they raised their own children.

"There's a lot of re-educating yourself as a caregiver," Beymer said.

Discipline techniques have changed, she said. While it was once acceptable to spank a child, it is now often considered abuse.

Grandparents also have to learn a lot about the differences in schools, like the amount of homework that is done on computers. Encompass offers parenting classes that grandparents can take.

In addition to parenting classes and the kinship group, Aldrich also enrolled Ashley in preschool at Encompass when she was younger.

"If it wasn't for this facility, this Valley would really be in trouble," she said.

For more information on this or other Encompass programs, call Encompass at (425) 888-2777 or visit www.encompassnw.org. Encompass is located at 1407 Boalch Ave. N.W., North Bend.e others like them," said Kerry Beymer, family

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