The Journey

The Joys and Cares of Custodial Grandparenting
By Megan Rieger

Steve Gorman, '70, stomps through his house pretending to be a monster. His two grandchildren squeal with delighted terror and run from their growling grandfather. Such playful antics are commonplace in the Gorman household, where Steve and his wife, Cinda (Warner, '71), have been raising their grandchildren for more than a year.

"We went from an empty nest and a tidy house to trying to keep up with a 5- and a 6-year-old," Cinda Gorman says. "We have a whole new normal, and it's Justin and Sarah."

The Gormans did not plan to be raising grandchildren in their late 50s. They took custody after receiving an emergency phone call from authorities: Justin and Sarah were found wandering to a nearby McDonalds to beg for food.

"We don't know how long it will be until our daughter is emotionally ready to be able to be a single parent," Cinda Gorman says. "Until then, we want to provide a safe and secure environment for them."

More and more grandparents are stepping in to fill the surrogate-parent role. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of U.S. children in grandparent-headed households increased 30 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Forty-two percent of grandparents living with grandchildren under 18 years were responsible for meeting the children's basic needs, with the remainder simply living in the same household as their grandchildren. This translates to 2.4 million grandparents nationwide who are again rising to the task of rearing children.

Raising other parents' children is something Nick Faber, '50, and Beverly (Holmes, '49) Faber are familiar with. In their 60 years of marriage, emeritus professor Faber and his wife have hosted or helped raise approximately 50 young people, ranging from babies to college students.

By taking in their grandchildren 14 years ago, the Fabers followed a long-running precedent of opening up their home to those in need.

"We had college kids living with us for 20 years," Bev Faber says.

Bev Faber says Rachelle and Marty, her two grandchildren, are "just smaller people."

Social Support
Grandchildren may be smaller people, but their constant presence may delay their grandparents' expectations for retirement. Custodial grandparents often struggle with loneliness, feeling different from their peers and experiencing a sense of invisibility, according to a 2003 study by the University of North Texas. Support groups act as a means of combating social isolation by allowing grandparent caregivers to share their concerns and resources with others in their situation. The AARP lists more than 300 grandparent support groups in its national database.

The Gormans formed the "Parents Again" support group at Westwood First Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they are co-pastors. A psychologist in their congregation facilitates discussion about the legal, emotional and financial issues custodial grandparents face. "Parents Again" provides the opportunity for group members to navigate boundary issues, such as when to let the parents see their children, when to stop parenting the adult child and how to ease feelings of guilt.

"It's not our job to turn them into parents," Steve Gorman says. "It's our job to raise their kids in a loving and nurturing environment."

Their support group serves as a constructive forum where members can express their pain and have their questions answered. Hearing from peers facing similar challenges reduces her own stress, Cinda Gorman says. The Gormans find the support group helpful because it provides them with a point of comparison with other couples. For example, grandparents might not always agree on how to handle a grandchild.

Yet even the support group itself can become a place of negativity if members focus on feelings of anger and bitterness, according to Arizona State University psychologists Robert and Shirley Strom. The Stroms developed the "Grandparent Strengths and Needs Inventory," which recommends setting growth goals for each person in a support group. Group members need to balance the urge to complain with encouragement and stories of success.

While the Fabers do not attend a support group, they sought help from other sources. When it comes to dealing with the courts, the Fabers advise other grandparent caregivers to develop a long-term relationship with the guardian ad litum, a volunteer appointed by the court to watch out for the children's interests.

"She was the children's advocate and became our best support," Bev Faber says. "It's extremely important to have a safety person connected with the courts who knows you and the children."

The Fabers also rely on other family members to help with caretaking when they need a break, or when Marty goes snowboarding or Rachelle wants to hit the mall.

When the Gormans need assistance, family and friends answer their call for reinforcements. They can attest that it truly takes a village to raise a grandchild. When Steve Gorman reaches his physical limit, he sends Justin to play football with a neighbor so that the little boy can run off his energy with other children his age.

"Let other people's parents step in the breach and don't feel bad about it, but be glad for their help," Cinda Gorman says.

Full-time care of grandchildren takes an emotional and physical toll. Recent public-health research shows grandparent caregivers are at elevated risk for depression and may experience increased fatigue. Thirty percent of the grandparents participating in research reported that their pre-existing health problems were aggravated by the stress of caregiving, according to a 2001 study published by Families in Society. Research consistently shows that grandparents must take care of themselves in order to be effective caretakers of their grandchildren.

The Fabers involve Rachelle and Marty with activities at their school and church that allow their grandparents to recuperate in the evenings. The Gormans have sought affirmation from a counselor and try not to isolate themselves.

"You do want to maintain your normal friends, which is a little challenging, because they don't have to get babysitters," Steve Gorman says. "It throws your contemporaries off a little bit, but we haven't lost our sense of humor about those types of things."

Balancing Roles
Raising grandchildren presents the challenge of juggling the grandparent role with parental responsibility. By moving into an authority role, custodial grandparents forego the traditional relationship between grandparent and grandchild.

"I think sometimes being a grandparent makes it hard to discipline them," Nick Faber says. "Grandparents want to be the people to pat them on the back, but we also have to be the ones to be the sheriff in their lives."

Although the Gormans want to be the "cool grandparents," they realize that spoiling the children must have its limits. At times, though, the Gormans intentionally reserve a day to pamper their grandchildren.

Maintaining generational identity can also be tricky, as grandparents find themselves caring for their elderly parents while raising children again.

"When we were parenting the first time, our parents could be helpful," Cinda Gorman says. "But now, while I'm dealing with kindergarten and ADHD, I'm also dealing with my mother's hospice."

Satisfaction in Grandparent Caregiving
Overwhelmingly, custodial grandparents derive satisfaction from their caregiving role, The Gerontologist reported in 2005. The study revealed that 90 percent of grandparents would take responsibility for their grandchildren if given the chance to choose again.

"You can either resent it, or say, we have the opportunity to nurture a couple little lives, and they're full of love, energy and silliness," Cinda Gorman says.

The Gormans strive to create a positive, affirming home for the grandchildren where no negative things are said about their parents. Justin's and Sarah's school projects and art cover the walls and fridge because the Gormans want the children to feel valued and at home.

"Wherever they turn, we want them to know that they count in our lives," Steve Gorman says.

Custodial grandparents can provide love, security and structure for grandchildren when family crises occur. While the Fabers encourage their grandchildren to pursue their talents, they keep communication lines open between Rachelle's and Marty's teachers and coaches by making frequent visits to the middle school.

"We have been actively involved as best we can," Nick Faber says. "It really bummed me out last week because I missed Marty's first basketball game."

The Gormans discovered their adopted daughter struggled with an attachment disorder as a result of her biological mother's neglect. As a child, she had gone unaccompanied with her brothers to a fast-food restaurant in order to eat, just like her own children then did.

"We're breaking a generational cycle," Cinda Gorman says. "Here are two more children that would be prime candidates for having attachment disorder themselves because of the chaotic relational life they were living with. This is our opportunity to build a safe, secure and loving framework for the rest of their lives."

For more information on raising grandchildren, go to:
The Administration on Aging website:
The National Family Caregiver Support Program administered by the Administration on Aging provides information on caregiver support groups for grandparents and other relatives raising children.

Grandparents Information Center:

Generations United:

For an extensive resource list, visit: and click to download the PDF document, publication FS255.