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Originally published: 2012-09-11 16:58:23
Last modified: 2012-09-12 12:50:21

Recognizing the sacrifices of nations

by Sherrie Norris

It doesn't receive the same fanfare as Mother's Day or Father's Day, but for the last 33 years, National Grandparents Day has been observed on the first Sunday following Labor Day.

Proclaimed as such by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, the idea for such an occasion originated with Marian McQuade, a West Virginia housewife whose primary motivation was to champion the cause of lonely elderly individuals in nursing homes. She also hoped to persuade grandchildren to tap into the priceless wisdom and heritage their grandparents have to share.

You might say McQuade's mission is being accomplished, but perhaps not in the way she envisioned.

According to Brenda Reece, family caregiver support specialist with High Country Area Agency on Aging, the number of grandparents and other relatives raising children is becoming more common.  

Reece cites statistics from AARP, which estimate that 4.5 million children are being raised in households headed by grandparents -- with more than 135,000 of those in North Carolina. In Watauga County, there are 422 grandparent-headed households and 367 in Avery.

Most grandparents raising grandchildren are between the ages of 54 and 65, Reece said, representing all socio-economic groups; the majority has been forced into the caregiving roles due to divorce, neglect, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, the death or illness of the parents, incarceration, unemployment, domestic, alcohol or drug abuse or abandonment.


"They have all of the same responsibilities that parents do," she said, "including providing social, economic and emotional support, but often with added pressures, such as a fixed income or health problems that come with age."

When relatives, particularly grandparents, take on a parental role, it affects many aspects of their lives, Reece said.

She said many face added stress due to concerns about their own health and finances, housing, medical care for the child. Grandparents also deal with loss of time for themselves, shattered dreams of retirement, changes in social life and various levels of emotional turmoil they may experience, including anger, resentment, fear, exhaustion, grief and shame.

Raising a young child when you're in your 30s or 40s can be exhausting enough, "let alone in your mid-50s or 60s," she said. 

All caregivers must take care of themselves as a first priority, Reece said, noting regular exercise, proper nutrition and regular check-ups as "a must."

Additionally, she said, "They also need to reach out to other grandparents who are raising grandchildren as a source of support, feedback and practical suggestions on how to deal with day-to-day life. They also need to connect with the parents of their grandchild's friends at school and become part of that community."


RAPP

As a result of the increased number of grandparents raising grandchildren, Reece said, state legislatures, public and private agencies and grassroots coalitions in North Carolina and across the nation have begun to expand services and supports for children living with kin.

To assist kinship caregivers in dealing with the multitude of challenges they face, Reece said, the High Country Relatives As Parents Program was established in 2008, in conjunction with the High Country Area Agency on Aging's Family Caregiver Support Program and the High Country Caregiver Foundation.

"High Country RAPP is the region's first program exclusively for grandparents raising grandchildren and other relatives who have taken on the responsibility of surrogate parenting," Reece said. "Our vision is to be recognized in the High Country as the leading resource for providing support, education and advocacy for kinship care families. The primary goal of the program is to build a social network for kinship caregivers, who often don't know where to look for services, support or companionship." 

Program initiatives include a resource lending library, financial assistance with legal fees, school- related expenses (end of year field trips, school supplies, school dances, etc.); recreational activities (summer camps, parks and recreation programs, scouts, etc.); Holiday for Kids (annual holiday party and toy drive) and monthly support group meetings.

One of the organization's newest projects, Reece said, is an annual National Grandparents Day breakfast, held at several public schools in Avery and Watauga counties.

Support for the program includes monies from fundraising efforts, donations from area churches, grants from local utility companies and civic clubs, support from the National Family Caregiver Program and the High Country Area Agency on Aging, and in-kind support from the NC Family Caregiver Support Program.  Additionally, through collaboration with the local chapters of Toys for Tots, High Country Council of Governments staff and the "Everyday Elves," each child received several age-appropriate gifts for the Holiday for Kids Program. 

Reece commended local businesses, including Boone Bowling Center, Chick-Fil-A, Grandfather Mountain, Mystery Hill, Subway and Tweetsie Railroad, for providing free food and passes for families enrolled in the program.                                        

"Our goal is to provide grandparents, and other relatives raising minor children, with support services and resources to assist them in their efforts to successfully raise the children in their care," she said.

Community support is vital to the success of the program, Reece said. "In these economic downtimes, many grandparent-headed families and other relative caregivers are experiencing difficulties paying for basic needs of the children in their care, not to mention opportunities for activities such as organized sports and scouting which help to improve children's' self-esteem and character."

Other needs, she said, include assistance purchasing legal services, school related expenses, recreational activities and adequate clothing.

"RAPP also provides both the children and the relative caregivers an opportunity to meet others who are in similar situations and prospects of collaborating with each other on things such as transportation and child care," she said.

Upon admission to the program and at six- month intervals, participants complete a needs assessment and caregiver-stress survey. Completed assessments and surveys are sent to Appalachian State University for evaluation of program effectiveness.

High Country RAPP has no paid staff; all program administrative costs are covered by High Country Area Agency on Aging. Two volunteers and two social work interns assist with the monthly meetings and provide supervision and activities for the children, allowing the relative caregivers an opportunity to openly discuss their situations and concerns.

"Relatives are often best suited to give children, whose birth parents are unable to care for them, the love, stability and support they need to grow and thrive," Reece said. "I am pleased that High Country RAPP can offer kinship caregivers this resource, which will help provide stability for the children and needed support for the caregivers, often with the least disruption to the family structure."

"It is important to know that they are not alone," Reece said about those family caregivers. "There are thousands of others in the same situation. High Country RAPP offers a wide range of programs and services to assist their efforts to successfully parent the children in their care."

 

If you are a grandparent raising a minor grandchild, residing in the High Country, and are interested in learning more about RAPP, contact Reece by calling (828) 265-5434, ext. 128 or emailing (breece@regiond.org)