As a mid-70’s, semi-retired person, the problems I suffer with aging go hand in hand with the joys of being a grandparent – the latter compensating for the former, at least for a time. Recently, my wife and I as part of the Wellspring Institute conducted a series of counseling groups at a local senior center where among the various problems addressed, two issues involving aging and grandparenting were conjoined; seniors moving in with adult child(ren) and grandparents responsible for grandchildren abandoned to their care. I’ll speak into both from the experience of those groups.
Moving into an adult child’s home can be problematic for the child and the aging parent. That’s why, I suppose, it’s often avoided. What seems a “natural” solution to the costs and obligations of elderly care is far from simple in its relational realities. As a product of separation and adulthood, the amity achieved in the parent-child relationship can become precarious as old tensions re-awaken in a new context and on different terms. Aging simply complicates the matter. What was clear in our groups was that neither the adult child nor the parent can afford to be naïve about relational problems they will face – problems often not anticipated or prepared for.
An example gives a sense of the complexities involved. Many in our group were widows, and the death of a spouse meant living alone with health and independence increasingly precarious. Though all had relinquished parenting responsibilities, moving in with an adult child involved a dependency on that child reversing former roles. For the senior, authority related to responsibilities became confused. To the extent she could be responsible for herself in practical matters – for meals, dressing, mobility, transportation, etc. – each activity came into question in terms of what she could or could not manage. Each became a potential source of friction.
Circumstances can also bedevil relationships. One widow, for example, had moved into her daughter’s home from a distant locale. To her surprise she found herself living as a “displaced person” – displaced from friends, from stores, from the familiar web of her former community. Without a “life” of her own, she experienced herself at the mercy of her children, and though they were caring and her basic needs were being met, the quality of her life as she had lived it was sharply diminished. While gratitude was in order for the care she received, in ways important to her sense of self and well-being the move seemed hardly worth it. The problem she presented in the senior group was how to re-construct a life for herself in the new setting or return to where she had lived before. In either case a move must now be negotiated with her children.
Ready access to grandchildren was to be the major benefit of the move, and she thought this would compensate for any losses. But she discovered that doting from a distance and seeing grandchildren occasionally on weekends was a quite different matter than being plopped without respite in the midst of a busy, work-a-day family. The non-stop noise of children and bustle of younger people’s lives was both stressful and invasive, particularly when her ability to state her needs, set boundaries and make demands was no longer based on the queenship of her own home. An added strain was living in close quarters with an in-law whose habits, tastes and values were born of a different upbringing. She found herself continually irritated, but felt powerless to protest. After all, what right did she have, it was his house? Jokes about mother-in-laws notwithstanding, she was not going to have them be about her.
These glimpses only hint at the root problem. Moving in with one’s adult child(ren) is not ultimately about circumstance; it’s about relationship. And if relationship is based on difference – dealing with “otherness” more than sameness – differences in relationship require dialogue and negotiation if differences are to become wedded and made tolerable for all. But dialogue and negotiation, in turn, depend on communication skills, so these became the focus of our group.
The first and easier task was to construct a framework for mutual agreement between the parties, because neither the parent nor her child/landlord had thought this would be necessary in advance. “Love” was to conquer all, and whatever issues might arise could be dealt with along the way. But working out a post-facto mutual agreement about financial arrangements, privacy, boundaries, differences in values, parenting of grandchildren, neatness, noise, food, transportation, participation in the household, etc. still required engagement in dialogue and negotiation by both parties around each point. It was the nitty-gritty of these relational issues that required the group’s input and support for the senior’s efforts to work this out. A major task was to help her differentiate essential needs from negotiable wants in the context of original expectations and subsequent disappointments. This proved no easy matter, for the desire to ignore issues because of the conflicts they could engender was intrinsically related to why no such agreement had been formulated in the first place.
The focus on relational communication skills brought out other issues about self-assertion and empowerment that were difficult for the seniors facing this problem. Some women had typically deferred to their husbands in order to keep peace. How could she speak out now about personal needs, when the primary focus of her life had been on meeting the needs of others? How could she stand in the tension of difference, foregoing temporary and even long-term discomfort, to arrive at mutually satisfying solutions? A question we faced as facilitators was whether or not an elderly person could learn new skills or was willing to engage in the hard work of coming to win-win solutions. Needless to say, it was a challenge for all of us in different ways. Though the group was time-limited in its scope, and the important work was just begun rather than completed, our experience underscored the critical need for support groups for seniors as an important component of their lives. Where else could they find sympathetic peers, who shared similar issues, and with whom they could commune, find friendship and obtain information, consultation and support in facing the problems they had to face?
If being a grandparent is compensatory to the problems of aging, what of grandparents who have primary responsibility for grandchildren abandoned to their care? What of grandparents who instead have become parents? In each case we encountered, drug addiction was the cause of their adult children being declared parentally incompetent. In many cases, the impact of drug addiction is multi-generational affecting both children and grandparents up and down the genealogical line. For grandparents the first problem is practical – the need of state support for services for the children and some modicum of financial support for themselves as “foster” parents.
For many, this support is a necessity, because grandparents are usually limited in their ability to work and support themselves, let alone support a family of younger children. In our senior group, there were two instances with different histories related to this problem. One younger grandmother had acted shrewdly on advice and resisted taking her grandchildren into her home. She used her willingness to do so as leverage to obtain an agreement from the state to provide the services she knew the children would need for as long as such services were needed. The main items involved schooling, treatment and medical expenses along with support for what amounted to foster care.
Another set of grandparents had acted from their hearts by stepping into the crisis immediately and assuming responsibility for the children. This was unwise as it turned out. By acting precipitously for the sake of the children, but without legal consult or advice, the couple had unwittingly relinquished their leverage with the state to obtain services and financial support. A critical element was convenient daycare for the children so that the grandparents could continue working to support their new family.
What both cases illuminate is the travesty that governmental support has become. Government agencies are bureaucratic and operate by rule, rather than by relationship, and money tends to rule the day. Though individual case workers are often compassionate and caring, they are regulated by form and by an authority structure that is increasingly remote from the people problems at hand. Regretfully, this was another case where “no good deed goes unpunished.” We offered consultation and advice but found there was no ready recourse. The only clout these grandparents, now parents, had was to threaten the state with abandoning the children and sending them to a state supported “safe home” or foster care. Because they were unwilling to risk the attachment injury that might accrue to these already wounded children if their threat proved unsuccessful, for the time being they deferred. Again, love and concern for the children was an obstacle these grandparents weren’t willing to overcome. The state apparently had no such relational concerns.
Having taken responsibility for the children, the grandparents were plagued by other relational issues perhaps more difficult to resolve. The addicted mother wanted to maintain contact with her children, and the grandparents initially were willing to support that, not wanting to injure an already fragile attachment. However, because the grandparents were now responsible for disciplining the children, the mother was now freed of that responsibility and brought them presents with each visit to assuage her guilt. This set up a destructive good-guy/bad-guy split between the mother and the grandparents – a painful dilemma which required confrontation of the mother with the risk of alienating the children. There was also the ongoing threat of the mother reclaiming the children while still living the life-style of a substance abuser. The grandparents had no trust in the state to understand or support them in this dilemma, when the overriding objective for the state was expedience in finding “permanence” for the children.
Being grandparents many times over, we found ourselves bemoaning the burdens and losses that had befallen these folks. Their hope for a well-earned retirement had been compromised because of the love they bore for their grandchildren. But they had also sacrificed that particular richness that comes of being a grandparent, born of the freedom to come and go, recoup, dote from a distance, and offer that particular kind of love that can result from relinquishing parental responsibilities. Instead, these grandparents had become parents again, but in a way that would test them severely moving into an uncertain future.
What we learned from these groups, if learning was needed, was that each of these seniors needed all the help they could get, whether that was peer support, relational skill-building, advocacy with state agencies, or financial assistance where warranted. Mostly, they needed counsel to look before they leap; and whether that leap was in love or naiveté, the joys of grandparenting could be at stake.
Richard Beauvais, PhD is a co-founder of Wellspring in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and is now Director of the Wellspring Institute dedicated to training and consultation with agencies throughout Connecticut and the nation. Dr. Beauvais has specialized in the understanding and treatment of traumatized, attachment resistant children and their families and has presented at various conferences on children and adolescents.