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Grandparents raising their grandchildren face unrelenting stress during pandemic

When Angela Smidt gets tired there is nowhere to go. She has no sure refuge, so sometimes she just stays awake into the night and soaks in the quiet.

Smidt, 67, lives in a one-bedroom, second-floor apartment in Rohnert Park. Her place is near a creek and it has a small porch. In that space, Smidt, an independent consultant who largely focuses on teaching retirees the basics of computers, raises her two grandchildren, a boy, who turned 11 on Wednesday and a girl who turned 9 the day before.

Before the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shelter-in-place order in Sonoma County, her apartment felt sufficient for the family of three. Tight, but just enough. After four weeks of teaching the kids at home, of staying in, of timing her trips out for maximum safety, of setting up counseling appointments via teleconference instead of in person - Smidt finds herself unusually exhausted.

The nighttime silence is her little relief.

“I put the kids to bed early, 8 or 8:30 p.m. I read to them,” she said. “They are asleep by 9 but now that they are not in school I find myself really, really tired. But I don’t want to go to bed - because I don’t hear anything, fighting or anyone asking me for anything. It’s my quiet time.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the extraordinary shelter order meant to quell its spread has placed unusual pressure on many people in Sonoma County and throughout the North Bay. But grandparents who are full-time guardians and caregivers to their grandchildren face a unique set of risks.

To start with, they are older and more vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus, and many have pre-?existing health conditions. Some face financial pressures brought on by taking in children at a point in their lives when they were either retired or closing in on their last years of work. And the weekday respite they would normally have at this time of year - sending kids off to school - is gone.

To make matters worse, many of the social services that grandparent caregivers rely on are harder, if not impossible, to access in a pandemic. For Smidt, that means counseling appointments for the kids are no longer in person but via video, in her apartment. Her own support group is no longer meeting in person, but via video chat, in her apartment.

“We are in a one-bedroom right now and pretty much on top of each other,” she said. “That time they went to school was crucial for my sanity … everything is so much more complicated now.”

There were more than ?2.5 million children being raised in “grandfamilies” or “kinship care” in the U.S. and more than 17,500 within the California Foster Care system in 2017, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center.

Area social service providers say this is a unique subset of the population that is feeling the stress of the pandemic in particularly acute ways.

“A lot of take-the-pressure-off strategies are ‘Let’s go to the park,’ ‘Why don’t you go out and play?’ or ‘You can stay at your friend’s house,’ and ‘There is an after school program.’ Now that is not there,” said Paul Margolis, a licensed marriage and family therapist who runs a support group for grandparent caregivers. “At a time when you are wanting to use all of these strategies and tools you have in place, well, you don’t have them anymore.”

And as the pandemic and shutdown exert greater sway over our daily lives, those stresses could deepen for both children and their caregivers.

“What we are seeing is that the pandemic is really shining a light and exacerbating, really, the enormous challenges the families were already facing,” said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for children, older people and families.

Smidt feels it to her core.

“The level of anxiety is through the roof,” she said.

Dramatic break in routine

Cynthia Ferrera has been raising at least one grandchild, sometimes three, for more than three years in her Rio Nido home. Had the coronavirus pandemic struck three years ago when she first took on full time parenting duties of her daughter’s kids, she said she would not have had the tools to cope.

“It was a lot of going into the shower and crying,” she said of those early days.

For respite these days she takes regular walks around her Rio Nido neighborhood. Three loops around the hill gives her 2 ?miles of peace.

For the children being raised by grandparents, many of whom previously endured chaotic and traumatic situations, the sudden and dramatic break in their routine can reopen emotional wounds. Grandparents have to tend to those concerns while navigating their own medical, financial and social uncertainties during a pandemic.

“It’s a heavy load that they carry,” said Renee Tapia, program supervisor for Lilliput Children Services in Santa Rosa which runs a kinship center where a parent partner provides support for caregivers in the guardianship process.

Ferrera, 51, is one of those parent partners. She was a Lilliput client first, and learning new skills for raising kids who have been through upheaval took time. The pandemic is testing them anew.

The shelter order, the loss of a school routine, it’s all unsettling for kids who crave stability, she said. For her 8-year-old granddaughter, the bond with her Cotati school is so strong that Ferrera made the commitment to continue driving her there when she first took the girl in.

But now, despite Ferrera’s best efforts, that link is broken. Her granddaughter is being taught at home, connecting via video chat and doing P.E. with grandma. It’s working, but Ferrera keeps a close eye on any triggers.

So when Ferrera got sick recently and had to go to an area hospital to be tested for COVID-19, she was worried not only about her own health but her granddaughter’s.

In order to get the test, Ferrera had to enlist another adult, an employee of the Crozat Foundation which had just given Ferrera a donated vehicle, to sit in the car with her granddaughter while she went in to ?be examined.

“I was very sick. I had pneumonia and a sinus infection but I tested negative,” she said. “She was worried, it brought up a lot of things. This was her first real breakdown in three years.”

Mindful of health issues

The same health precautions that have led grandparents to be careful about shopping and medical appointments have also, for many, led to even tighter controls on who their grandchildren come into contact with, including their biological parents.

“Even though my daughter says she is keeping safe, I just can’t take that chance,” Smidt said. “I’m older. I have lung issues. I am desperately afraid of catching this.”

Lynn Coleman, 59, doesn’t know if the pandemic has caused it, but doctors are now monitoring her blood pressure regularly. Coleman lives in Santa Rosa and has been raising her 11-year-old grandson for four years. She didn’t have blood pressure issues two months ago and the sudden onset has her worried. She’s not a big fan of having to access medical care when so much of the local health system is now structured for COVID-19 cases.

“I have had a phone doctor appointment every Friday for a while now and they just had to schedule an EKG,” she said.

The long-term care of her grandson weighs on her.

“I’m a widow,” she said. “I don’t have a backup to help and that concerns me every day, if something were to happen.”

That same dilemma is faced by many grandparents raising children, according to Peterson Lent of Generations United.

“So often these families are formed in an emergency - all of a sudden the children come into their care,” she said. “They have not had time for making a plan for what happens if something happens to the caregiver and they were not able to care for the children …Very few have legal arrangements.”

The stress can be overwhelming, especially when the usual support systems are also stretched, altered or unavailable.

Adult conversation has given Coleman some solace. She is part of Margolis’s support group. Hearing from peers who are in the same boat, with similar struggles, is a lifeline, she said.

“It’s like OK, somebody else feels the same way or understands how I’m feeling, what I’m going through,” she said “It’s ‘Thank you. You understand what I’m talking about.’?”

For Smidt, that solidarity is heartening. It makes her feel seen and heard.

“I don’t think people realize how many of us there are,” she said. “I feel like we are forgotten.”

Guardians are heroes

A crucial piece, advocates say, is making sure grandparent caregivers get rest and self-care. And that can be exceedingly difficult while sheltering in place. Finding a quiet moment, Smidt said, can feel impossible.

“The problem …” she said, before commotion erupted over the phone in the background. The kids are fighting, again. “This is what happens,” she said. “I totally can’t do anything. As soon as I turn around …”

Self-doubt, a nagging cloud for most parents, especially amid the pandemic, can also hit grandparents with child-raising duties especially hard. They can be especially vulnerable to the feeling that they are somehow falling short.

“Being a grandparent, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to entertain. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing them because I am not much fun,” Smidt said. “I just feel like failure.”

So she pushes herself to see the silver lining. She knows many grandparents are forbidden from seeing their grandkids during the pandemic. She’s thankful hers are close. And she knows, because of her, that they are safe.

“There are so many grandparents who would love to spend time with their grandkids and can’t,” she said. “I have them here with me.”

Advocates call grandparent guardians like Smidt heroes.

“They are incredible,” Tapia said.

“I was on the phone with a grandmother the other night, because that’s when she can get the kids to sleep,” she said of a video support call. It was supposed to be the grandmother’s alone time, her window to connect with another adult and find support.

But life interrupts. Babies stir.

“She sits down and then there’s the baby and then the 2-year-old in her lap,” Tapia said. “To watch her, with such patience, take these children while we continue to talk, rock them back to sleep and nurture them? It’s amazing what these families do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield

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