BERTRAND -- When the daughter of Betsy Howard, 61, and her husband, Richard, 67, died nearly 10 years ago, the couple found themselves moving from Chicago, Ill., to Bertrand to raise their three grandsons. And little did they realize how different their lives would become.
"It was a big change because when you're a grandparent, you spoil a kid," Betsy Howard recalled. "After their mother passed, I was still doing the role of grand-mama and had to hurry up and change and switch over and be a mother again." More and more these days grandparents like the Howards as well as other family members such as siblings, aunts, uncles, etc., have found themselves raising other family members' children as a result of increased divorces, incarcerations, child abandonments and substance abuse by parents.
"Just when they were ready to go fishing everyday, now they have to face the whole gamut again. Time looking forward to resting is now being spent chasing a 3-year old," said Ruth Dockins, public information director for the Southeast Missouri Area Agency on Aging.
The 2000 Census reports there are 90,200 Missouri grandparents who have grandchildren under age 18 residing in their home. Of those, 321 grandparents in Mississippi County, 372 grandparents in Scott County, 313 grandparents in New Madrid County and 348 grandparents in Stoddard County are responsible for raising their grandchildren.
Among the regions, the highest percentage of children living with their grandparents is found in the predominantly rural Southeast Region (3.2 percent of all children). However, the percentage of children living with grandparents is nearly as great in the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas. In both those regions 3.1 percent of children under age 18 were living with grandparents in 2000, according to the Census.
The University of Missouri Outreach and Extension is acknowledging the need for education programs for those who are parenting their grandchildren by conducting free workshops for these grandparents in Jackson, Charleston and Poplar Bluff.
"This program is really a combination of a parenting education refresher as well as them finding camaraderie from others in the group who are in the same situation. They get a lot of benefit out of this," said Mary Engram, human development specialist for Mississippi County Extension.
The multi-session program for grandparents focuses on changing roles and responsibilities, children's development, discipline and guidance, legal issues and advocating for their grandchildren.
"Grandparents, many times, feel almost overwhelmed because when they raised their children it was safe to play kick the can at night," Dockins explained. "Times are different and that makes it especially difficult for grandparents. There are things they're just not aware of anymore."
The ultimate goal of the workshop is to try and offer support groups in the area, and this workshop is a way to get a group started, Engram noted. Another reason for the workshop is to let the grandparents and other family members learn of the resources and help in the community and take advantage of them.
For example, many grandparents are on Medicare, and while it pays for the grandparent, it doesn't pay for the child, Dockins pointed out. Grandparents may not know of other programs available to them such as MC-Plus, she said.
Dockins noted legal issues are a big concern of grandparents raising grandchildren because they must decided whether it's better to adopt, to obtain guardianship or to just let the children live with them because there is a financial difference, she pointed out.
When the Howards were first faced with the decision, the couple didn't feel like they should be guardians to their grandsons because they were already their grandparents, Howard said. Eventually though they took legal action and officially became guardians of the youngest two boys, Justin, now 16, and Dave, now 15. The oldest grandson, Truean, was over 18 so he was considered an adult.
Throughout the years, Howard admitted the most challenging part of raising her grandsons has been living on a fixed, retirement income.
"We've got to pay the bills, and both my husband and I have doctor bills and hospital bills," Howard said. "But we've also got to try to buy shoes, underclothes, socks, T-shirts and then something may be going on at school where they might have to pay a fee, and you hate for the kids to be out and not able to participate in any of the functions."
Howard and her husband hope to seek more advice at the Extension's upcoming workshop in Charleston, however they may be the ones giving the advice.
"You have to put the old foot down and don't be stepping lightly," Howard advises to fellow grandparents raising grandchildren. "You want them to do good and not to be so intolerant that you can't manage them, but you also want them to know you're there and in their corner."
The education workshop in Charleston will be from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. March 24, 31, April 7, 14 and 21 at the Charleston Public Library. The Poplar Bluff workshop will begin at noon April 6, 13, 20, 27 at noon. To register at Charleston call (573) 683-6129 or (573) 686-8064 for Poplar Bluff.