In 2014, more than a third of all children who were removed from their homes due to parental alcohol and drug use were placed with relatives. In many ways, that’s good news for kids. Research shows that grandfamilies protect against trauma and promote resilience. But the arrangement can also be incredibly difficult for the grandparents themselves - many of whom are older and dealing with their own challenges - especially when it comes to physical health.
“It is hard. The youngest one is Audrey, and when she graduates, I guess I’ll be 67...and every summer I wonder can I keep up with them,” said Kelly George.
Kelly is 55. She said some days are just really exhausting.
“But it’s worth it,” she said. “Because I don’t want them deprived of their childhood because I’m an old mom. And they call me mom. It’s something they chose.”
Kelly worked with kids with behavior disorders for 20 years, but retired early when, about 10 years ago, she and her husband got custody of the two grandchildren from their daughter who is a recovering heroin and methamphetamine addict. The girls are now 10 and 13. Their younger sister, age seven, has also been with Kelly since she was born.
Kelly’s son and his wife are also both in recovery, but are doing well. At one point, though, Kelly had five of her children’s children officially and unofficially under her care.
“At first pills of course, snorting,” she explained. “Then it became oxys and roxys and then it became opanas. And then when they restricted the pills to when they couldn’t shoot them anymore or break them down, that’s when heroin went crazy here.”
Kelly worries about her ability to keep up with “her girls” as she ages. She not only cares for the three grandchildren, (as well as other grandchildren when one is sick or other care is unavailable), but also her husband who she says is “very good with homework” and a great support... but very ill. He was given five years to live in 2005 due to various lung and heart issues.
Shirley Neitch is a geriatrician at Marshall Health. She said most of the grandfamilies she sees are headed up by grandparents in their 50s or 60s like Kelly. But sometimes, great-grandparents are the primary caregivers and could be in their 80s or 90s.
“Well, they have the medical problems that people their age have which tends to be not just one, but multiple problems,” Neitch said. “The most common of which is arthritis. And the more arthritis you get the more difficult it's likely to be literally to be able to keep up with their grandchild.”
And then, she said, older adults caring for children don’t do as good a job managing their own preventive health care.
“Every dime I have goes on these kids,” Kelly said. “I mean obviously I have a pair of glasses that I need. These are all scratched up, I can hardly see out of them right now. Audrey has new glasses. And I had to take her to Morgantown for a second opinion. That all came out of my pocket. You just do what you can to the best of your ability.”
As hard as it is on the grandparents, pediatrician James Bailes said the arrangement can be really beneficial for the kids.
“If you look at the alternatives, placing a kid in foster care or being in a situation where the parents are abusing drugs or financially can’t support the kids, it’s much better for the kids to be in a stable situation IF the grandparents can physically do it,” he said.
Kelly agrees. She said when the girls first came to her home they had problems with anger, eating habits and anxiety. During a recent visit to the George home, though, the girls happily babbled about their school day, scavenged for snacks and pet the dogs - like any other children their age would do.
“If Josh and Jennifer, or God forbid, my daughter, relapses, I’m going to beg someone in my family to do it because I just don’t think I can do it,” Kelly said. “I don’t think I can do it anymore. I don’t think I could take on a baby right now.”
Kelly said it’s not just the physical aspect for her, although that is a big concern, but also the mental toll it takes on her family.
“I’m physically exhausted, I’m mentally exhausted.”
When asked - how did all this happen? How did addiction become such a problem in her family? Kelly doesn’t have an answer. Like many - she wishes she knew. “Addiction has no boundaries,” she said. “If you think you're exempt and your family is exempt, you’ll be wrong because addiction comes from good and bad homes.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.