Jan and Edmund Wagner imagined time would slow down when they retired. They’d have more time to spend with friends and enjoy visits with their grandson, Holden. But when their daughter became addicted to Vicodin she began using to treat back pain, they suddenly found themselves back in the role of mom and dad.
“I looked forward to being the cookie grandma, rather than the parenting grandma,” Jan said.
Grandfamilies on the rise
Although it may sometimes feel like it to them, the Wagners aren’t alone. More than 2.6 million American children—almost 4 percent of all kids—are cared for full-time by grandparents or other family members, according to a recently updated State of Grandfamilies report by Generations United.
More than 2.6 million American children—almost 4 percent of all kids—are cared for full-time by grandparents or other family members. The opioid epidemic is increasing that number every day.
The opioid epidemic is increasing that number every day. Since 1999, overdose deaths have increased fivefold in the United States, with a daily average of 115 deaths in 2016.
More grandparents are coming forward to help when parents die or become unable to care for their children because they are incarcerated or in treatment or struggling with addiction. These often-unplanned family arrangements cause financial strain and a range of challenges for the older parents.
Holden, 12, has been living with his grandparents in Ludington, Michigan for 10 years. The trauma he suffered under his mother’s early care led to a need for constant attention and a fear of being abandoned again. He also developed mental delays.
Struggling to keep up
Jan and Edmund didn’t have the energy to keep up with Holden, which made exhaustion a common visitor during those early years of caregiving. And their social lives were impacted as they lost relationships with friends, who were enjoying empty nests in their 50s.
The Wagners, now in their late 60’s and retired from jobs in construction, are determined to give Holden every advantage they can, even if that means using up their savings and moving to a smaller home, which they did last year. They now struggle to make ends meet, living just above the poverty level on their sole source of income, a monthly Social Security check.
“We live social security check to social security check,” Jan said. She said their biggest challenge is paying for medications.
They were able to qualify for payments from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but their monthly benefit of $153 is less than the average payout of $249. For foster parents, the average minimum payment was $511 per child several years ago, according to Generations United. Jan applied to become licensed as a foster parent in hopes of obtaining more financial support. But because there was never a child protective services case opened for Holden, the state wouldn’t qualify her for the payments, she said.
She said grandparents carry a double burden, because they worry about the wellbeing of their biological children and their grandchildren – and many carry a lot of guilt at the same time.
“I wish people could understand that it’s really nobody’s fault,” she said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. It happens.”
A chance to be a child
Still, Jan said she doesn’t regret the financial and emotional sacrifices she and her husband have made for Holden.
Their family is doing well and Holden’s mother is doing better and receiving therapy. They enjoy spending time outdoors with Holden, going hiking, fish and camping.
Jan said she follows a simple motto in life: “Help give your child a chance to be a child.”
Carol Wu is an editorial intern with MemoryWell. She is student at New York University in the liberal arts program, studying in Washington, D.C.