Any parent will tell you that raising a kid is a full-time job. For some on the peninsula and across the country, however, that full-time job has come well after retirement.
Over the month of October, the Clarion got to know a few of the grandparents and great-grandparents that have become primary caregivers and guardians for their grandkids during a monthly meeting — known as the Grand Group — at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Kenai.
The Grand Group was started in Kenai about three years ago and has allowed these grandparents to connect with one another in a way that they didn’t have before, when they thought they were on their own. It is one of the only resources in the area specifically meant for grandparents raising their grandchildren, according to Lauralee Peterson, manager of the Children’s Advocacy Center.
The Grand Group typically meets on the first Thursday of every month to share stories, have lunch and lean on each other for support in a casual, comfortable setting. Peterson and other staff members make sure there is hot food and hot coffee available, and there is a playroom for the kids to enjoy when they have to come along with their grandparents. Occasionally, the meeting has a topic attached to it that is discussed toward the end, such as how they share their heritage with their grandkids and pass things on to the next generations.
The Grand Group met twice during the month of October — once at the beginning of the month and again on Halloween. Not all the grandparents are able to attend every time, and each has a different story to tell and different lives to manage. Some are going it alone, while others have had to postpone their retirement plans and continue working in order to provide for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For Joe and Nancy Carlson, raising kids that were not originally their own is familiar territory. In the 40 years that they lived in rural Alaska about 60 miles north of Fairbanks, the couple raised 25 kids — 20 of those being adopted.
The Carlsons didn’t just stumble into a large family — it was the plan from the start, according to Nancy.
“Before we got married I asked him if he wanted 16 kids,” Nancy said. “He said ‘sure!’”
Sixteen eventually turned into 25, and the rest was history. The two are even in the process of writing a book about their experience with the working title “23 Kids Below Zero.” The “23 kids” reflected how many they had raised when they first started the book.
The Carlsons had all their kids out of the house for all of about six months before they took on the responsibility of caring for two of their grandchildren. The kids were at risk of going into the foster care system when one was about 6 months old and the other was 2 years old.
“They’re not taking any of our grandkids into foster care so we can lose them there,” Nancy said, recalling the situation.
“So we stepped up, and after three or four years they told us to just adopt them,” Joe added. “We’ve adopted 20 kids out of 25 and we have 57 grandkids, so I think taking in two isn’t too bad, percentage-wise.”
That was seven years ago, and these days the kids rely on grandma and grandpa for everything.
A grandparent raising a child faces some unique generational challenges that younger parents might not encounter. Being older comes with more frequent doctor visits, for example, but the Carlsons joked that as long as the kids have some kind of electronic device in front of them they’re happy to go anywhere with grandma and grandpa. Hearing what the kids have to say can be a challenge as well, but modern technology makes it doable.
“When you get older God blesses you by turning the volume down around you, but now with the grandkids I had to crank it back up,” Joe said, adding that he acquired hearing aids a couple weeks ago that have made a big difference.
“We’d be in the car and the kids would say something cute and I’d go, ‘Joe did you hear that?’” Nancy said. “And of course he didn’t, so I’d have to repeat it, but it’s always less cute coming from me.”
By the time the group met on Halloween, the Carlsons had taken in two more grandkids in October — a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. At that point it was not a permanent arrangement, but the Carlsons said they were prepared to shoulder the extra responsibility if needed.
Being a grandparent is often associated with holiday visits, family dinners and the occasional sleepover, but in recent years a growing number of grandparents and great-grandparents have taken on the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren. In 2005, 2.5 million children were living with grandparents responsible for their care, and by 2015 the number had risen to 2.9 million according to Pew Research.
While the circumstances for each family is different, research from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren tends to be higher in states with higher rates of opioid prescriptions.
In Alaska, about 7,000 households consist of grandparents who are responsible for their grandchildren, and about 2,700 of those have been doing so for five or more years according to data from the U.S. Census.
Despite the struggles that come with raising young children in their older years, Joe and Nancy stay in good spirits and try to be as active in the kids’ lives as possible. The two say that their grandkids are eager to help them around the house, and being on both ends of the age range ends up saving them money when they go out to eat.
“When we go to restaurants, the back of the menu has discounts for seniors and children,” Joe said. “We all eat half-price!”
Sue Gill has been raising her great-grandson for the last six years, and this summer she and her husband took in another one of her younger relatives. Gill said during the Oct. 3 meeting that the recent adjustment has been difficult, mostly because the newest member of their household came from a home with very little structure — which is not the case at the Gills.
“Things are a little different at my house, because we have a routine and I have rules. He gets huffy sometimes, and he always feels he has to defend himself,” Sue said. “I try to nip it in the bud, I really do.”
Gill reached out to the ladies at the Children’s Advocacy Center to help get her newest charge into school for the fall, which she said has been beneficial for him adjusting to his new living situation. She managed to enroll him in a private school — which is what Gill thought would be best — but the tuition isn’t cheap.
As all of the grandparents at the meeting attested, the added financial burden that comes with raising children can be especially difficult when on a fixed income.
“We just have Social Security, and grandpa is trying to pick up a job here and there,” Gill said. “But he can hardly get around himself, so his parents are actually paying the tuition. Praise god. I couldn’t do it otherwise.”
Vicki Fruichantie also spoke to the financial difficulties of raising grandchildren, specifically as a single caretaker. Fruichantie said that she assumed the role of guardian for her grandkids when they were about 2 and 3 years old, and Fruichantie was on the verge of retiring. Now, she continues to work full time five years later in order to cover the numerous costs associated with raising children.
Because many grandparents — including the ones at the Grand Group — step in and take responsibility for their grandkids before the state gets involved through the Office of Children’s Services, their options for financial assistance are often limited as well. That could change, however, as the growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren has drawn national attention.
The Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act was signed into law in July of last year and established an advisory council that will “identify, promote, coordinate, and publicly disseminate information and resources to help older relatives meet the needs of the children in their care and maintain their own health and emotional well-being.” The council is required to submit a report on its findings two years after the passage of the act, according to the language of the bill.
After Gill had shared her own recent developments at the Oct. 3 meeting, she turned to her friend Fruichantie to see what was new in the world of being a single grandparent. Fruichantie said that her grandson had recently been struggling with some anger issues. Fruichantie’s solution was to sign him up to be in a play, which he was reluctant to do at first, but he eventually came to enjoy it.
“Finally, he’s come around to where he wants to do it and he’s excited about the play,” Fruichantie said. “He’s got a little more self-confidence, he’s able to express himself, and now after practice he’ll come home and say ‘look what I learned today!’ Or ‘what do you think this looks like, should I do it this way or that way?’”
Immediately, the other members of the Grand Group made plans to go see the play and make a “field trip” out of it in a show of support for their friend.
During the Halloween meeting, Fruichantie reported that all five performances of the play were a success and that her grandkids were already excited for the next one.