Grandparents have always played a meaningful part in their grandchildren’s lives. But in the face of the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire, more are taking on the role of full-time caregivers. And that means they have to prepare – emotionally and financially – to raise young kids at a time when most of their peers are slowing down.
As part of NHPR's Crossroad series, which examines the impact of substance abuse on the Granite State, NHPR Contributor Sheryl Rich-Kern visited one grand-family in Rochester.
(Editor's note: We recommend listening to this story.)
Edie Anderson is in her kitchen as her great-granddaughter bursts into the room. The 10-year-old Haylee McLellan is just home from school. She plops her books down on the counter.
Her great-grandmother asks why she's lost her ponytail, and Haylee fluffs her cool-girl, straight hair around her shoulders as if to signal she’s ready for grownup conversation. Haylee pours cereal into a bowl and Anderson hands her some milk. Haylee guzzles her cereal before it has time to lose its crunch.
As Haylee recounts the dramas of her day, Anderson listens patiently. This isn’t a social visit. Anderson is Haylee’s legal guardian. Her grandson was Haylee’s dad. He lived with Anderson, but died at 18 in a car accident when Haylee was 10 weeks old. Haylee’s mom was only 14 and using drugs.
"She tried to get clean," says Anderson. "She went to a rehab and came back out and two months later she was doing drugs again. I do have compassion for her. But I don’t want her to have Haylee until Haylee is 18 and can make up her own mind."
Anderson’s vague on details, but she’s got other close family members who’ve had issues with addiction and lost custody of their kids.
"And it wasn’t light drugs," Anderson adds. "It was heroin. It was heartbreaking. It really is."
Anderson's story is not unusual.
So far this year, the Division of Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF, placed more than 300 children with relatives, most often a grandparent. And these are just the cases the DCYF reports. According to census numbers, around 2,500 grandparents in New Hampshire are raising their grandchildren.
Kate Sullivan is with Service Link, a state resource connecting seniors with care and funding. She says these grandparents will do anything to keep these kids safe. But she says they’re not used to the pace. "If they’re thinking back to raising their own kids without cell phones, without YouTube, without text messages, and they’ve got grandkids involved in all sorts of activities they’re unfamiliar with. It’s very different now."
Sullivan says grandparents are managing their own medical issues. Or perhaps caring for elderly parents. They’re also bringing up kids who are dealing with trauma.
Haylee, for example, is nervous about staying at other people’s homes. "I have separation anxiety," she says. "I’m worried about something happening in the house and me not being there for her."
"I wish she wouldn’t feel that way," her great-grandmother responds, "because she’s missing out on a lot of things."
But Anderson is also realistic. She’s 72 and has a few health problems. She has backup plans for Haylee, but she also wants to prepare her for a day when she won’t be around.
"And I want her to say what we had no one can take away. I’ll be watching over; I’ll be watching you, girl....don’t cry, Haylee."
Haylee: "I’m trying hard."
Anderson: "It’s OK, Haylee."
The sunlight through the kitchen window pales. It’s time for dinner. Haylee grabs a can of Chicken a la King from the pantry. Her great-grandmother boils water for noodles.
Food is one of Anderson’s bigger expenses. She gets some help from the state, $300 every two weeks, she says.
But on her limited Social Security income, she barely ekes by.
"All the school supplies. Her school clothes. Because she grows like a weed. Her shoes. You have to keep buying this stuff. It ain’t like you can buy it once," says Anderson.
Anderson has found other resources. A Family Caregiver grant helps pay for Haylee’s camps and sports. That grant was initially designed for adults over 55 caring for spouses or parents, and a few years ago, grandparents rarely applied. But in another measure of how the opioid crisis changing things, grandparents are now 15 percent of the recipients.
The good news is, studies show that kids who share a home with relatives are more likely to thrive. But that doesn’t mean life is easy.
"Well, she keeps me young," Anderson chuckles. "I have to get up every morning at 6 a.m. to get her ready for school. On the whole, it’s just an everyday experience of raising a kid when you’re 72 years old."
And, at the end of the night, Anderson says it's the hug and kiss that means everything to her.
Haylee has a safe and loving home. But as the opioid epidemic continues, more kids will need someone other than their parents to step in and raise them. And that means more grandparents will settle for a life they never would have planned.