Almost 60,000 grandparents in Virginia have stepped into the role of parents for their grandchildren. For the most part, grandparents find joy and satisfaction in the experience, said Megan Dolbin-MacNab, associate professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. But the responsibility can also bring stress.
"Grandparents step in when there are problems with the grandchild’s parents, such as drug use, incarceration, abuse, and neglect, among other problems," said Dolbin-MacNab, a faculty affiliate of the university's Center for Gerontology. "Some grandparents take on the role as parent informally, while others become a formal foster parent or legal guardian."
Dolbin-MacNab's most recent research focused on grandchild well-being and relationship dynamics within the grandparent-headed family. "Grandchildren are often very grateful for their grandparents' sacrifice and are aware of what life would have been like if their grandparents had not been willing to care for them," she said.
Still, as a licensed marriage and family therapist, Dolbin-MacNab said she sees the challenges. "Grandparents may have age-related health issues, and some may experience serious depression or psychological distress. Finances are often a significant source of stress because grandparents may not be employed or may have limited incomes. There may also be legal difficulties related to obtaining custody or guardianship," she said.
"In addition, due to the circumstances that brought them into their grandparents’ care, grandchildren can have serious physical and psychological difficulties that grandparents must address."
Despite these challenges and the availability of support services, many grandparents are not receiving the assistance they need. In particular, research suggests that grandparents may not be accessing support services related to nutritional needs. There is also evidence that some grandparents raising grandchildren may have difficulty affording nutritious foods, while others may be unaware of guidelines for healthy eating, especially for young children, Dolbin-MacNab said.
To address this need, Dolbin-MacNab and Elena Serrano, associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, are working with the Virginia Department of Health’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to discover ways to better reach and serve needy young children being raised by grandparents.
In 2010, WIC approached Karen Roberto, director of Virginia Tech's Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, who pulled in Dolbin-MacNab because of her research with grandparent-headed families, and Serrano, who has conducted and studied community nutrition programs, focusing on food security, including WIC, and childhood obesity.
Dolbin-MacNab and Serrano have been using community participatory approaches to talk to WIC staff, professionals from community and state agencies, grandparents who are already using WIC, and other grandparents raising grandchildren. "Thus far, we have gained important insight into best practices for serving grandparent-headed families with nutritional needs and what the barriers are to grandparents and grandchildren accessing and using WIC," Dolbin-MacNab said.
Overcoming barriers to using support services like WIC is essential. "Barriers might be something obvious, like a lack of transportation or childcare. However, grandparents might be so worried that someone will judge their family situation or parenting skills that they won’t seek assistance," Dolbin-MacNab said.
They are helping WIC to develop strategies for overcoming such barriers. Based on recommendations from the study so far, Virginia WIC has modified their caretaker policy to make WIC more accessible for children being raised by grandparents. The policy "now states that, in the absence of a legal guardian, a kinship caregiver may be designated as a child’s caretaker," Dolbin-MacNab said. "Previously, this provision did not exist. We’re very excited about this policy change."
Serrano and Dolbin-MacNab are also providing insights into the nutritional status and needs of grandparent-headed families and assisting WIC in delivering services and educating grandparents. Findings thus far suggest that grandparents may lack the energy and resources to provide themselves and their grandchildren with nutritious foods. Getting enough food may also be a challenge. Using these and other findings, the researchers will produce educational and outreach materials for WIC and training materials for WIC staff on how to engage and serve grandparent-headed families.
As someone whose grandmother helped raise her, Dolbin-MacNab said she has affection for the grandparents she meets through her research. "They are doing so much for their families and it is an honor to hear their stories. Getting to know them has been very rewarding, both professionally and personally."
She recalls how a research trip to Big Stone Gap, Va., once evolved into a friendly debate among her research participants about the right and wrong way to make biscuits. "Despite all that teaching, my biscuits still don’t turn out quite right. But I’m working at it."
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The Center for Gerontology serves as the organizational unit and focal point for aging-related activities at Virginia Tech.
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