At the Epsworth United Methodist Church in Ripley, West Virginia, five grandparents sit around a table listening to a speaker tell them, “You are not alone.”
Although prayer is mentioned frequently at the meeting, religion is not the subject of today’s conversation - rather, how to communicate with grandchildren after grandparents are thrust into the role of primary caregivers.
“I want you to know that if you feel like no one’s listening, they are now,” said Bonnie Dunn, the the West Virginia State University Healthy Grandfamilies program facilitator.
The program is a pilot funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is designed to help the growing number of grandfamilies cope with their situation by offering discussion sessions on topics such as communication, nutrition and stress.
“There are different things that grandparents experience when they find themselves with their grandchildren,” said Beth Frampton.
She’s a therapist at Family Care and a guest speaker in the program who focuses on mental health. Many of the families involved in the program have loved ones who struggle with addiction to opioids or illegal drugs.
“One of them is guilt,” she said. “‘What did I do wrong, that I’m having to raise my grandchildren that my children aren’t capable or willing to raise my grandchildren?’”
Frampton said they often also experience anger.
“There’s a strong sense of family and obligation. So you can have anger, depression, guilt,” she explained.
Not only that, she says grandparents are struggling with both their own health, and grandchildren who might have a variety of behavioral and academic challenges. So part of what the program does is teach grandparents how to navigate school and medical systems in today’s time.
“No matter the age of a grandparent, no matter the health issue of a grandparent, that grandparent is going to take that child, or take them children, not looking at the health issues they’ve gotten and not looking at are they really going to raise these children into the areas they need to do,” said Debbie Ball, who participated in the pilot program.
We sit at her kitchen table while her grandchildren are in school. Their mother is incarcerated with a 30 year sentence on drug charges.
“My biggest thought is Lord, just let me - keep me in good health and a sound mind to be able to maintain on their own,” she said.
Debbie found the program too short. It’s the first program of its kind in West Virginia, and was only designed as a three year pilot of six month interventions for each group of grandparents. But now that Debbie has graduated, she said what she craves is long-term support.
“We don’t have a support group,” she said. “We don’t get together two or three times a week or two or three times a month to sit and talk about how we could make things better or how we could do this or what do you think about that. Well let me tell you about how I’m working on my end with stress...we don’t have that.”
There are a couple other grandparents in Debbie’s apartment complex who are also raising grandchildren with whom she communicates on a regular basis. But she doesn’t drive, doesn’t walk well due to a bad hip and doesn’t use a computer. Which means that even if there was such a group, she’d be dependent on other people to get there.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.