More Michigan grandparents are raising grandkids. Two bills may help them.

Esther McLaughlin and her 7-year-old grandson Ramir, always go through his book bag after school to look for homework and see what he did that day at their home in Southfield, near Detroit. (Bridge photo by Dale Young).

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A proposed change in state law would take the first steps in formalizing support for a growing number of Michiganders raising their grandchildren.

The work can be overwhelming as grandparents are suddenly thrust back into the daily routines of parenting — cooking and school pick-up lines and the weekly battle to keep the refrigerator stocked, all the while navigating legal forms, medical records and other bureaucratic obstacles. 

““You get no support at all, even just to get a break,” said Esther McLaughlin of Southfield, who is raising her 7-year-old grandson, Ramir. 

“It’s 24-7, 365 days of the year, and we’re no longer in our 30s and 40s,” said McLaughlin, who is 72.

She is among an estimated 120,000 Michiganders living with a grandchild, double the numbers of a generation ago, according to a recent statewide survey of residents aged 60 or older. 

For many, even the most precious childhood milestones — successful potty-training, or an unsolicited “I love you” from a moody middle-schooler — can be overshadowed by the exhaustion of raising a youngster as their own knees creak, along with the brutal uncertainty of whether they can keep up.

A bipartisan, two-bill package in Lansing could bring a bit of relief to grandparents raising their children’s children.

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The Kinship Caregiver Navigator Act, sponsored by Rep. Frank Liberati,  D-Allen Park, would create a state program within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to draw federal dollars for so-called kinship “navigators.” People in these positions provide information and support, including access to benefits or other financial assistance, to help grandparents navigate education or child welfare systems that may not initially recognize their role as parents. 

There may be new schools to enroll in or new pediatricians to see, or court hearings with counselors. At least 26 states had some form of federally funded kinship navigator program as of 2018. 

Lisa Grodsky, manager of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program at the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency, recalled one grandmother’s frustrating efforts to get support when she could no longer afford the grocery bills to feed her growing grandchildren.   

The woman opened a phone book, flipping through yellow pages for “W” to find “welfare” — a long-outdated term for public assistance.

“She needed help but didn’t know where to turn,” Grodsky said.

Other grandparents ring up crushing credit card bills for “school clothes, play clothes, shoes, toothbrushes, and food, food — always food,” Grodsky said.

A second measure, the Kinship Caregiver Advisory Council Act, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Crawford, R- Novi, would establish a state advisory council that includes caregivers. The goal is to spark collaboration among state, county, local governments and others to better support grandparents.

State representatives Kathy Crawford, a Republican from Novi, along with Frank Liberti, a Democrat from Allen Park, have sponsored legislation that would take first steps to better recognize and support older  Michiganders raising grandchildren.

Both bills are before the House’s Families, Children, and Seniors Committee, which Crawford chairs.

The state, Crawford said, is already behind in recognizing the critical and exhausting work of grandparents thrust back into full-time parenting. And their numbers are growing.

Twice as many grandparents today in Michigan report raising or helping to raise grandchildren than a generation ago — an estimated 120,206 Michiganders in 2019 compared to 58,220 in 1987, according to the survey, called the Older Michigander Needs & Solutions Assessment.

Based on surveys last August of 600 Michiganders aged 60 and older, the report was conducted for the Area Agencies on Aging Association, which represents the state’s 16 Area Agencies on Aging that, in turn, coordinate services for seniors across the state. The East Lansing-based marketing and research firm, Mitchell Research & Communications, conducted the interviews.

Tom Jankowski, associate director for research at Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, developed questions for the report. The language about caregiving for grandchildren shifted slightly between the first and second surveys, he cautioned. Still, he said, the questions were close enough to roughly capture how the caregiving landscape has grown over time.

Child care is expensive, meaning that Michigan’s poorest families often turn to grandparents for help, said Wayne State University researcher Tom Jankowski.

Those growing numbers, along with Michigan’s demographic shift toward an older population — 2.4 million Michiganders age 60 or older last year compared to 1.5 million in 1987 — show the stark challenge facing so many families across the state. 

And those estimates may actually be conservative.

    “I have friends who may not say they’re raising their grandchildren,” Jankowski said. “But they have them at their house 10 hours a day while mom or dad is working.” 

    Subhead: Bewilderment and uncertainty

    The 2019 survey revealed high levels of economic uncertainty and other vulnerabilities these grandparents face, including:   

    Compared with peers who are not raising children, these grandparents: 

    • Need major home repairs at nearly twice the rate — 15.9 percent compared to 8.2 percent; 
    • Face serious challenges managing their healthcare and medications at nearly four times the rate of non-caregiving contemporaries (33.3 percent compared to 7.4 percent); 
    • Suffered potential elder abuse at nearly three times the rate — 14.3 percent compared to 4.8 percent

    It’s probably a matter of socioeconomics, Jankowski said.

    Grandparents with low incomes are far more likely to provide substantial care for their grandchildren than their more affluent peers. 

    “Childcare is expensive,” he said.

    Finding a guide through the system 

    Military deployment, addiction, allegations of neglect or abuse, mental illness, incarceration or the death of a parent — there are a variety of reasons why grandparents find themselves again raising young children, sometimes decades after they last chased after giggling toddlers or helped with homework late into the evening.

    The Kinship Care Resource Center at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work has helped grandparents and other family members for years in these new roles. The legislation now pending in Lansing would continue those efforts within Michigan’s state government, making the program more sustainable and allowing the state to more easily tap into federal funds for services. 

    Among the first tasks of the Advisory Council, if the bills pass, is better quantifying the number of grandparents and the children they are raising and the challenges they face, said Rep. Crawford, who has a background in aging services and was a founder of Michigan Association of Senior Centers.

    The unending work of finding services, paying bills, and heart-wrenching legal decisions take their toll, she said.

    Grandparents often must decide, for instance, whether to become a foster parent for their grandchildren, a guardian, or adopt them, she said. Sometimes there is hope that mom or dad will return to their roles and the grandparents don’t want to legally step into that parent role.

    Even outside of a courtroom, they ask themselves if they are too old for the role, and wonder how long they will be needed, Crawford added.

    “It’s almost always a heart-breaking situation,” she said.

    Ethlyn Unger, 76, raised eight children and two grandchildren. These days, she watches 5-year-old Peyton, a great-granddaughter, after school and on weekends while Peyton’s parents work. (Courtesy photo)

    For Ethlyn Unger, the toughest part of parenting a grandchild was the unfamiliar digital world in which children, she felt, had lost a sense of self-discipline and respect for others.

    She and her late husband, John, raised two grandsons in the Royal Oak home where they’d already raised eight children. She was in her 50s and he had had two hip surgeries when they took in the boys. They found their days suddenly punctuated by emotional trauma, medical questions, court hearings and seemingly endless shopping trips for boys who grew up quickly. 

    For all the exhaustion, there were few options. “You just have to be strong,” she said. 

    Those boys now are young men, and the now 75-year-old Unger recently was readying craft supplies for a 5-year-old great-granddaughter, Peyton, who she now watches on weekdays while the girl’s parents work.

    “I’ve never had an empty nest,” she said, chuckling. “I'm not sure I ever will.”

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    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 7:49am

    Folks, it's not the Govt role, its not the taxpayer's responsibility.

    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 9:47am

    Who's is it then, Matt? How are retired folks living on fixed income (maybe a pension, if they're lucky) supposed to make up that difference? I know logical thinking and empathy are foreign to you, but really

    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 11:06am

    Wrong guy. But getting past the usual nastiness just curious, why is it always assumed by your thinking that every need must be addressed by the government and thereby turned into a political issue?

    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 5:49pm

    What a lazy dodge. How are poor old folks on fixed income supposed to make this work? You want to bring back poor houses for the kids? Shuffle them off into the foster system? How, Matt, you soulless husk? How?

    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 8:39pm

    Ah Bones ,,, You're particularly unpleasant today. You out of weed?

    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 10:21am

    Answer the question, you selfish reprobate

    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 8:18am

    Expand on your auto text response.

    woody glasson
    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 11:02am

    Except for those who have had children die or some other tragedy People today are reaping what they have sowed. You didn't raise ur children to wait until they were married to have children, you let them run the roads with other kids who were a bad influence. People say," my grown child has to work and someone has to watch the kids" really, your child needs two new cars and a house that cost 2000 a month? No, Men man up get your house in order and women stay home and take care of your children! but oh that's old fashioned.
    The way the family goes so goes the nation. The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world.

    Nick Ciaramitaro
    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 1:11pm

    Would be great if we could go back to a world where both parents didn't have to work to make ends meet. Maybe the CEO's could share some of that big money with the people who actually do the work to help reach that goal.

    woody glasson
    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 4:28pm

    Maybe if the government wouldn't tax so much:) Maybe if we just waited to marry to have children maybe if .......... but for those who have to deal with this I don't think the answers will change anything for them. However, perhaps the next gen. will learn :)

    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 8:51pm

    Interestingly Nick in the last 30 years the size of our homes has doubled along with big jumps in autos and other vehicles per person. Cable TV Cos didn't just randomly guess that people would actually pay $100 +++ a month to watch TV that 15 years ago was free, did they? There's no doubt pressures have increased but a lot of them were willingly added to our lives (thereby giving those CEOs those fat paychecks!).

    middle of the mit
    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 2:31am

    Yeah Matt?

    I suppose you think that because Bernie Sanders wrote a New York Times best seller, and now he is a millionaire, makes him the same as Bloomberg.

    The difference? For Bernie to be the same He would need and extra 998,000,000.00 just to get to a Billion dollars. Now Bernie needs to times that much by 65!

    Do you or the other cons on this board think that you will EVER be able to do that?


    Mon, 02/24/2020 - 11:49am

    2013 my husband and I began to raise our then , 8 yr old grandson. Both his mom and dad died in a car accident. Had many difficult moments, but there has been more happy days. Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small things. They have an advantage of learning from an old soul.

    Tue, 02/25/2020 - 9:16pm

    It's actually a simple equation; if you can't care for them, don't have them. These
    grandparents could have been competent and loving parents, but their kids can become addicts ; it just happens. I would hear a proposal for helping these kids come from Matt instead if him blaming the victims. I don't think he will be happy until we return to the lifestyle of 16th century Budapest where the kids just begged in the streets. The world is getting very crowded and expensive because too many people thought it was OK to have 8 kids in an economy becoming increasingly automated. When there are too many rats in the cage, they get restless and aggressive. But really, you are going to attack the grandparents caught in this trap because they somehow brought this situation on themselves? Useless, mean and stupid commentary.

    William R.
    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 1:12am

    Meg you are the only sane person in this conversation. I whole heartedly agree with your words of wisdom

    William R.
    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 1:03am

    I would LOVE to take care of my grandkids 24/7, and I would gladly do it

    Wed, 02/26/2020 - 8:16am

    Wow!!! Hey folks how about this. Before being the typical judgemental, holier than thou humans. Walk one mile in the shoes of a Grandparent, Aunt, Uncle who is faced with raising a relatives child(ren). If they are providing a stable loving environment and need help for whatever reason then they should have our support. We are after all helping a child who had no choice in this life. If these relatives need to get help to feed and house the children then so be it. Unless you are well educated in the circumstances of the subject don't comment. We already have enough ignorance if which we have to deal.