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.