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When Grandma Becomes Mom

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While friends are planning for retirement, Stella Kessler is managing appointments for her special-needs grandson. She is raising the 16-year-old by herself, balancing doctors' visits with her own business meetings.

"You do what you have to do," says Kessler, 64, a senior sales director with Mary Kay. "The energy is not like I had before, but I'm not a slacker either. I can get things done."

More and more grandparents are raising grandchildren, an encore performance requiring stamina, patience and financial resources that test the promise of the golden years. In 1970, about 3 percent of all children under 18 lived in households headed by a grandparent; by 2007, 6.5 percent -- 4.7 million kids -- were doing so, according to the Census Bureau. In Florida, the share is larger: 7.1 percent, or nearly 260,000 children.

At last count, 2.4 million grandparents across the country -- 148,000 in Florida alone -- had stepped in when their own children couldn't do the job.

Death, divorce, illness, even financial difficulties, have traditionally sent grandchildren into their grandparents' homes. Substance abuse problems have fueled the recent upward trend across socioeconomic lines.

"A lot of this has to do with drug issues," says Deborah Whitley, director of the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandkids at Georgia State University. "Parents are users or dealers or they're incarcerated, and the children are left to relatives, usually grandmothers, to raise."

High-profile figures like President Obama, who was largely raised by his maternal grandparents, and Michael Jackson, who left custody of his three children to his mother, have focused attention on "grandfamilies" -- a term coined to describe these arrangements. It's a spotlight advocates welcome.

"They are trying their best under difficult circumstances to do what they can for their grandchildren," says Barbara Stoler, a retired psychotherapist who runs a Grandparents Raising Grandkids support group at the Alper Jewish Community Center in South Miami-Dade. "The love and concern they have really comes through."

Grand Pride

Grandparents say experience and age have taught them to be more relaxed with their grandchildren. If there is resentment at the double duty, they don't express it publicly. In fact, those interviewed bragged about the success of the children, often against formidable odds.

"I used to do a lot more worrying when I was young," says Eartha James, who is raising six grandchildren, from 4-month-old twins to a 17-year-old. "But now I just take it one day at a time. We're getting along. The older ones help with the younger ones."

Instead of playing golf or going on cruises, these second-time-around parents are attending school open houses and Little League games. Adele Katz, 80, has taken her 14-year-old grandson to the Lowe Art Museum for classes. Her husband helps with homework.

"When he was 4 or 5, he told me, 'You're my mom,' and that's what he's called me since," says Katz, who has raised the boy from infancy. She sold her business to spend more time with him -- a selfless act that's not uncommon, Stoler says.

Special Concerns

Grandfamilies, however, are not without problems.

"A lot of the kids do come in with special issues," says Anne Strozier, director of the Florida Kinship Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Some kind of trauma has led them into their grandparents' homes, and they've lost their parents in some way. These children really need attention."

Stella Kessler's teenage grandson was taken from her drug-addicted daughter as a toddler, lived with his father, became a ward of the state and bounced around the foster-care system until Kessler became his foster mother when he turned 9. Her daughter died in 2001.

"He's had a lot of losses and now we have a lot of challenges," Kessler says.

Her foster-parent status, with its government benefits, is unusual for grandparents. The overwhelming majority take over child-rearing without financial help.

"Most of these arrangements are informal," says Whitley. "Parents abandon the children at their grandparents' and child welfare never gets involved. Many grandparents prefer it that way because they don't trust child welfare agencies."

Going it alone financially is no easy task for those living on fixed incomes or trying to save money for retirement.

Patty Bahner of Oakland Park, Fla., is raising her daughter's child, Daiza George. She works as a medical biller, and must pinch pennies to support herself and the girl she calls "the light of my life." She has opened a Florida Prepaid college account for the 10-year-old.

"I should be saving for retirement at this age, but that's not a priority," says Bahner, 49. "We shop at thrift stores and clearance racks, and I don't have a stick of new furniture in this place. We're far from wealthy, but we don't go hungry."

Even for those receiving government help, the aid tends to be minimal. In Florida, grandparents receive about 55 percent of the monthly stipend other foster parents get, says Strozier of the Florida Kinship Center.

"Legislators understand that it costs the same to raise these children whether they're with relatives or not, but there just hasn't been any extra funding," she says.

Legal Challenges

Grandfamilies also face legal issues, particularly if they don't have formal custody. Advocates advise grandparents to formalize the relationship -- a variety of options exist, from guardianship to adoption -- to avoid snags registering grandkids for school or taking them to the doctor.

Without legal standing, they also run the risk of losing the children to a biological parent. Both Strozier and Whitley say they often receive desperate calls from grandparents after Mom or Dad has shown up to claim custody. "The grandparents experience a lot of ambiguity," says Whitley of Georgia State. "On the one hand they would like to see their own child get her act together and come back. On the other, the return may not be the best thing if they just snatch the kids away and don't get help."

In the end, many grandparents say, the challenges are worth it. Stella Kessler's oldest granddaughter, Kathleen, is 26 and working with her in the Mary Kay business.

Kathleen says she appreciates the routine and structure her grandmother provided while she was growing up -- church every Sunday, religious instruction every Wednesday, school on weekdays and extracurricular activities afterward.

"I call her the 1-800 Grandma," Kathleen quips. "She's my best friend now."

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