Pictured: Participants in PEACE Inc.’s R.A.P.P. programs
Grandparents Day 2020 (September 13) is the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the important role that grandparents play in our lives. Because older adults are at high-risk for COVID-19, this has been a challenging year for many grandparents. Maintaining social distance from loved ones, friends and other people in the community is important for staying safe and healthy, but can be emotionally challenging.
For older adults who serve as a caregiver to a grandchild or other family member, this dynamic is even more complicated. These grandparents must do their best to follow safety guidelines while caring for their grandchild and helping them navigate school and other day-to-day needs.
In 2019, the Health Foundation partnered with the Brookdale Foundation to provide grants to community-based organizations in western and central New York in support of Relatives as Parents Programs—or RAPP. These programs provide support, guidance and respite opportunities for grandparents or other relatives who serve as the main caregiver for children whose biological parents are unable to provide that care.
“Many of the people we serve are at a stage of life when they were looking forward to things like retirement and travel, but are now taking on the new role of caring for a small child,” said Jennifer Norton, Kinship Care Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Buffalo. “And it’s amazing to see them just step up to the plate. They are so resilient.” Catholic Charities and YMCA of the Twin Tiers partner to provide kinship caregiver programs to the communities they serve in Olean and Wellsville, with funding from a Health Foundation RAPP grant.
Before the pandemic, their programming consisted of monthly in-person support groups and family fun nights. As an added source of support, the YMCA also offered family memberships to the caregivers they served through the program. This enabled caregivers to exercise, take classes or just take a break while their children played in the kids room. The kids, too, could take part in team sports, classes or activities at the YMCA.
When COVID-19 put an end to face-to-face meetings and gym time, the kinship caregiver team pivoted to continue to meet the needs of the families they serve.
“We began offering a weekly support group over video conferencing,” said Jennifer. The meetings covered a variety of topics, from lighthearted—one session involved making handmade face masks together—to serious, such as sharing information on the legal rights of grandparents.
As restrictions changed over the summer, Catholic Charities and the YMCA were able to safely offer some in-person gatherings, like a socially distant, outdoor community picnic. Jennifer also wants to continue to find ways to keep their community together in a healthy way, through events like hikes or delivering kits to families for activities they can do together over video. She has seen first-hand how important that togetherness can be for grandparent caregivers.
“When something like this happens to your family, you can feel alone and left out, with no one to turn to,” said Jennifer. “Our support group brings together grandparents who have been doing this for several years and gives them the chance to help grandparents who are new to the situation. It helps those new caregivers to feel more supported and confident in their choices, and lessens the fear of what they are facing. It gives everyone involved a sense of community.”
Reducing and Addressing Trauma and Racial Disparities
Family caregiver support programs are valuable for the children involved, too. “Many of these kids have faced trauma, including separation from a biological parent due to issues such as drug addiction or incarceration,” Jennifer says. “Bringing them together with other kids who have similar family structures can make them feel less alone and gives them the opportunity for bonding, laughter and fun.”
Generations United, the advocacy group who spearheads Grandparents Day nationally, notes that studies show children who cannot remain with their parents do best when raised by relatives. Children cared for by family have better mental health and behavioral outcomes compared to children who are placed in the foster care system.
Additionally, recognizing and addressing racial inequities in the foster care system must be a key part of the conversation around supporting grandparents as caregivers. Black, Latino and Native American children are placed in foster care at disproportionately high rates. Providing opportunities, resources and support for extended family members, such as grandparents, to step into the role of caregiver can help ensure better overall well-being for children of color. Read more from Generations United.
A Chance for Rest, Fun and Community
In central New York, PEACE Inc.’s family resource coordinator Shelly Kasprzak knows firsthand the impact of these services—she is a caregiver to her eight-year-old granddaughter. She also oversees PEACE Inc.’s RAPP program serving the western suburbs of Syracuse. Before the pandemic, their RAPP programming would include twice-monthly support meetings. When social distancing made it harder to get together in-person, Shelly made sure to find new ways for their grandparent caregivers to stay connected.
“Throughout it all, I’ve kept in touch with our families. Some would come in to our food pantry, and for those who couldn’t, we’d arrange to have food delivered to their home,” said Shelly. Recently, the group was able to safely meet in the park, socially distanced and wearing masks, to take in a cooking demonstration with Cornell Cooperative Extension. At that meeting, Shelly also gave kids backpacks full of back-to-school supplies, thermometers and other gear.
“I also see this as an opportunity to stay in touch with the kids and their caregivers, and hear their concerns about going back to school to see how I can support them,” she said.
Those opportunities to connect and have a moment of fun are a key part of their RAPP programming. Before the pandemic, RAPP meetings were held over lunch.
“Having lunch together gives the families a nice break,” said Mary Beth Welch, PEACE Inc.’s family services director. “If we have a cake or other treat donated to the center, we’ll make sure we bring it to the RAPP program so we can celebrate special occasions like birthdays together.”
Shelly shared that for some grandparents, the RAPP programming is their only chance to have time to themselves. Like their counterparts in the Catholic Charities RAPP program, the group gives both grandparents and kids the chance to feel less alone.
“Our activities give them the chance to meet new people and have fun, and not feel so different.”
That impact continues to grow: PEACE Inc.’s RAPP program has been such a success in their community, they applied for and received a grant through the CARES Act to run a RAPP program in the city of Syracuse as well.
When asked if there is anything the community can do to better support grandparents raising grandchildren, both Jennifer and Shelly agreed: more awareness and recognition of the unique challenges facing this group.
“Most people don’t realize there are so many people in our community in this situation—grandparents taking care of their grandchild, niece, nephew or other family member,” said Jennifer. “We need to do a better job supporting older adults in general, but especially those in this position.”
Generations United has provided extensive resources for grandparents who serve as caregivers, and for the family members who wish to support them.
The Administration for Community Living is offering this COVID-19/Emergency Preparedness Resource Guide for Kinship Families and Grandfamilies.