At 71, Fredericka Nelson should be the one being taken care of. After 40 years of cleaning offices to support a family on her own, the Brooklyn mother of six and grandmother of 21 thought she’d enjoy growing old in peace.
That was until her youngest daughter, who struggles with substance abuse, gave birth to Jessica, now 10. With the girl’s father out of the picture, Nelson was forced to make a difficult choice: she could adopt her granddaughter or send her to live in foster care. For Nelson, there was no hesitation. She’s been raising Jessica alone since the girl was a month old.
“I’m doing the best I can with her,” Nelson said of motherhood the second time around. But, she sighed, “It’s hard. I didn’t think I would have to start all over again… This is not the ‘Golden Years’ I imagined.”
While other grandparents have the freedom to “go anywhere, do anything they want,” Nelson’s days are spent rushing Jessica to school and helping with homework. She’d like to travel, spend time with her friends at the YMCA and take time for herself. But that’s not really an option.
“I can’t do so much,” she said. “Now my life revolves around her.”
Jessica is one of an estimated 83,000 children in New York City being raised in grandparent-headed homes (about 400,000 state-wide live with relatives who are not their parents, the latest census figures show). But these elderly caregivers are unique in that they face the task of parenthood at a time when they are coping with new needs of their own.
“[They] really thought they had hung up their gloves,” said Ivy Gamble Cobb, executive director of The Family Center in Midtown, which runs the city’s largest program designed specifically to help grandparents older than 60 raising young kids.
Many of the grandparents the center serves were thrust into the position of caregiver when they, like Carter, realized their children were not fit to parent. Some of their children suffer from substance abuse or mental health issues. Some are in jail.
Others, like Rosa Domenech, 83, have lost their children to cancer, AIDS or other tragedies.
When Domenech’s 44-year-old daughter died of cancer four years ago, she adopted her granddaughter Cassandra, now 10, into her Long Island City home. Cassandra’s father had a history of alcohol abuse, and his problems worsened when Cassandra’s mother died. As she was mourning the loss of her daughter, Domenech was forced to become a parent, again.
But Cassandra, like many children who suffer such a shocking loss, was deeply resentful of her grandmother.
“She was extremely angry with Rosa,” remembered Linda Meaney, the social services supervisor at The Family Center who has worked with Domenech and Cassandra over the years. The two, she said, had terrible fights. “She didn’t want that old woman taking care of her,” Meaney said. “You’re too old to be my mother,” Cassandra would repeatedly say.
And while tensions between the two have eased, Domenech, who is retired and suffers from high blood pressure, says it’s now getting harder and harder for her to keep up with her active granddaughter’s schedule.
“She’s getting older,” Meaney said. Things take longer. She grows tired sooner. She’s not as quick as before.
There are also financial concerns. Most of the grandparents the center serves are low-income African-American and Latina women who never planned on covering the costs of raising additional children. Unlike foster parents, grandparents do not receive a government stipend for raising their kin. A comprehensive survey of grandparent caregivers released this summer by the New York City KinCare Taskforce found that almost all must rely on public assistance, including the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Medicaid and Food Stamps and the New York City Housing Authority.
Approximately 70 percent reported that they can “barely manage to cover their expenses.” Thirteen percent reported they simply could not make ends meet. Again and again, the survey found problems securing housing, obtaining health care and navigating family courts, and repeated complaints about roadblocks in the system.
“Kinship caregivers, filling a void left by the absence of biological parents, have accepted responsibility for children at their own expense, both financial and emotional,” the report states. “Yet, the overwhelming conclusion of this study is that their efforts to obtain necessary benefits and services for these children are often met with unhelpful staff at city agencies, bureaucratic red tape, paltry benefits and misinformation.”
The survey implored the city “to recognize the magnificent service kinship caregivers perform,” and to do more to help the group survive.
But as city budgets are slashed across the board, government support has dwindled for the handful of city programs that assist this oft-overlooked population.
The Family Center, which provides family counseling, legal aid, grandparent support groups and other assistance, was informed in December 2008 that, thanks to the recession, it had lost its grant from the city’s Department for the Aging, reducing the operating budget by $100,000, or nearly 20 percent.
“That’s very significant for us,” Gamble Cobb said.
As a result, the center has had to cut back its outreach efforts because it can no longer afford to serve the number of clients it once did.
“When you’re having to deal with these very dire fiscal times, tough decisions are being made across the board,” she said.
By some estimates, unpaid caregivers, including grandparents, already save the government an estimated $6 billion that would otherwise be spent on foster care. Part of the problem is that most other city services are not designed for elderly mothers and fathers. For instance, most senior centers won’t even allow children inside their buildings. Assisted living facilities that accommodate children are extremely rare.
“They just don’t fit in anywhere,” Meaney said. And for grandparent caregivers like Nelson, this lack of support can be frustrating.
“We have to put our retirements on hold and take care of these children,” Nelson said. But, she complained, “They really don’t acknowledge grandparents. They put us on the backburner.”
Diane Mick-Feldman, 65, agrees.
Mick-Feldman knew it was time to step in when her grandson Evan, now 14, told her how bad the situation was at home during a visit to his pediatrician’s office three years ago.
“Grammy, things are so bad,” said Evan, who had grown quiet and withdrawn. “Be glad you don’t live with me. It’s really bad now.”
Evan’s parents had had a history of substance abuse problems and were having trouble paying the bills. They had no electricity, little food and no phone.
“Is it time for you to live with Grammy?” Mick-Feldman asked.
“Yes,” her grandson answered.
But Mick-Feldman and her husband, Henry, 71, said the transition from retiree to parent has been a challenge. Before Evan, she said, “We were happy empty nesters.” “We had freedom,” Henry agreed, describing dinners out, traveling and entertaining as they pleased.
With Evan in the home, “the spontaneity came to a halt.” Nights at the Angelika have been replaced with class parent meetings, homework help, taking Evan to football games and cheering on the sidelines.
Henry has had to continue working, knowing he must put another child through college soon.
“This is certainly a big change from what we expected,” Mick-Feldman said.
She urged the city to “step up to the plate” and do more to fund resources like The Family Center, which make life just a little bit easier for caregivers like her.
“The Family Center enabled us every stage,” she said. “For us it was critical…. Without the center, I think we really would have not had such a turnaround in Evan’s behavior and quality of life.”
Caregivers often forget to take time for themselves, and a great way to unwind is with a massage. Downtime Massage + Skincare, which recently re-opened at 698 10th Ave. and West 49th Street, is sponsoring a spa giveaway for a three-hour “Hell’s Kitchen” retreat package that includes a facial, body treatment and massage. Owner Greg Cartwright said the package is valued at $425.
“This package is about giving someone a service so they can feel that they fill their cup up,” Cartwright said. “If I can be of service to someone else and stick a smile on their face and make the difference in someone’s very hard year, I’d feel very accomplished.”
Patrons should also check out the spa’s “sugaring” treatments, based on a secret Turkish recipe for boiling down sugar to a paste and using it for hair removal.
Care for the Caregiver
To enter the contest, send a short email to firstname.lastname@example.org nominating a caregiver, and explaining why this person could use this opportunity to “fill their cup back up.” The deadline is Dec. 21 and the winner will be announced Dec. 24.
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