Holding the Family Together
by Robert Mitchell and Warren L. Maye

No one can fathom the depth of commitment, sacrifice, and sometimes despair many grandmothers experience today in their pursuit of a deferred American Dream. But despite advanced age, and meager resources, they press on for their families, determined to mend the jagged tears in our socio– economic fabric.

Amid great change and frequent turmoil, grandmothers have helped hold down the fort in their families. Some are “having the time of their lives,” writes Linda Eyre, author of Grandmothering: The Secrets of Making a Difference While Having the Time of Your Life. They are examples of those who live comfortably with their extended families in multigenerational settings. Eyre contin­ues, “The nice thing is that we are usually no longer responsible for the nitty gritty everyday discipline and character building of these children.”

However, statistics show that about 20 percent of grandmothers are living below the poverty line and are struggling to build a legacy of hope against challenging odds.

For instance, U.S. Census data reveals almost 3 million grandparents are rais­ing grandchildren. That number has been rising and has drawn considerable media attention in recent years.

Today in the United States, many grand­parents are dealing with the “nitty gritty” responsibilities of family life; often borne out of tragedy or society’s failure to help meet their basic needs. Their lives are anything but normal and, to the larger soci­ety, appear invisible.

A family in need

One of those families belongs to 80–year– old Pam Rivet of Rochester, N.Y. She moved in with her 52–year–old son, Norman Jr., who suffered a stroke and is paralyzed. Pam cares for him and her 13–year–old grandson, Norman III.

“Pam is a strong woman who is dedi­cated to caring for her loved ones,” says Jaden Towner, the children’s care manager for The Salvation Army in Rochester.

Pam, a former hairdresser who lived a middle–class lifestyle for most of her life, has known her share of heartbreak. She lost her first husband 30 years ago and her second husband swindled her out of her life savings. Along the way, she has survived colon and breast cancer and a broken hip.

In 2017, Norman Jr., after overcoming drug problems, had back surgery and then suffered a massive stroke while still in the hospital. He spent two years undergoing physical therapy in a nursing facility before returning home just before COVID–19 struck.

Pam then became the sole provider for Norman Jr. and Norman III. She retired eight years ago, and her only income now is Social Security. But she needs much more.

“Although Pam is frail and in recovery from cancer, her spirit doesn’t show this,” Towner said. “She made sure to visit her son every week while he was in the nursing home, encouraged him to work hard, and fought with providers to get him back into their home.”

The family now lives together in a one– bedroom apartment. Norman III bunks in the bedroom, while Norman Jr. sleeps in the dining room. Pam also sleeps in the dining room, but on a reclining couch.

Norman Jr., is in a wheelchair and para­lyzed on his right side. He can walk some, but needs help.

A home health aide comes in daily to help with Noman Jr. Pam is the one who schedules doctor appointments, does the grocery shopping, communicates with providers, and ensures that all the needs are met for her son and grandson.

“I’m here for them,” Pam says. “I take care of them. I make their meals. I’m here if they need someone to talk to.”

A friend takes Pam and Norman III to the laundromat and to the grocery store. The two do their best to care for Norman Jr. and are dedicated to ensuring that he stays at home with them and out of the nursing home.

“Pam is the glue that holds this family together and sets the precedent for the family’s morals, work ethic, and expecta­tions,” Towner said.

Towner is the care manager for Norman III, who needed help when his father was in the nursing home. Pam says he also hasn’t seen or heard from his mother in two years.

Towner said Pam prioritizes education and it has rubbed off on 8th grader Norman III’s outstanding academic success and dedication to schooling.

“I adore him. He’s my one and only grandchild,” Pam says. “He’s doing well and he’s in the honors program and does a lot of 9th-grade work.”

Pam is Episcopalian, but attending church is difficult because the family doesn’t have transportation. She does receive Bible verses on her phone each day and credits “The Guy upstairs” for her resilience.

“I pray every day and evening,” she said.

Despite all the setbacks, Pam says she simply puts one foot in front of the other.

“I just do it. I do what I have to do,” she says. “I keep talking to God and I keep asking Him to help me and to please guide me. I have my days where I’m not function­ing well, but I think everyone does. I just try to move forward and try to think positive.”

Towner said the family is an inspiration.

“Pam always pushes her family to do and be better while lending a helping hand to whatever they may need to bring this success,” she said. “In all, this family has shown that no matter what happens, they will continue to overcome anything.”

Pam is aware of the trend of grandpar­ents playing a larger role in helping so many struggling American families survive.

“I think they do it for the benefit of the family and to keep the families together and keep them from falling apart,” she said.

Resilience in the face of loss

The Salvation Army also helps another multigenerational family in Rochester with a similar story.

In 2016, Grandmother Connie Thomas had her leg amputated. She moved in with her daughter, Cherie Boswell, and her three children, JhVari, 18, Acacia, 15, and Chione, 9. The family cared for Connie until she could relocate to her own home.

In August, Cherie lost her job at a pharmacy and the family had to move into grandma’s house.

“It’s been a good transition for the family since grandmother needs help caring for herself and mother and children are able to do so right in her home,” Towner said. “In addition, the family has been able to spend more time together and learn different recipes, techniques, and forms of communication from each generation.”Towner is the care manager for Acacia, who has had behavioral issues. Her mother said Acacia feels comfortable being mentored by Towner.

“They talk about things she’s not comfortable talking to me about,” Cherie said of her daughter and Towner. “It’s more of a big sister–type relationship.”

Cherie said living with her mother has its “ups and downs,” but “you learn as you go.”

“She raised me, so she has her way of raising children and I have mine and we blend both aspects,” Cherie said.

The family lives in a two–bedroom apartment and the living spaces are tight, but Grandmother Connie helps with cooking and raising the kids.

“She spoils them,” Cherie says. “They enjoy being around grandma.”

A nationwide phenomenon

Since the start of the devastating recession in 2007—the longest one since World War 2, and the cause of millions of people losing their life savings, their jobs, and their homes—more children have been raised by their grandparents, which include all racial and ethnic groups, according to the Pew Research Center. As in Pam Rivit’s and Connie Thomas’ cases, almost half of chil­dren being raised by grandparents also live with a single parent.

Pew Research revealed that grandpar­ents in such families have limited financial resources and are over represented among seniors who live below the poverty line. Hispanics, blacks, and Asians make up a larger share of grandparents with grandchildren at home than does the 50–plus group overall.

Despite the onslaught of problems these courageous women face today, they remain resilient, hopeful, and intrepid in their pursuit of the American Dream for their families. When Thomas says that the kids “enjoy being around grandma,” her obser­vation is indicative of how most grandpar­ents in these situations give themselves high marks for the role they play in their grandchildren’s lives.

Now and the future

Eyre wrote this advice to grandmothers, “I have recently realized that most of us are going to be grandmothers much longer than we were mothers with children in our homes. Hover over your life as a grand­mother for a moment. Look down from above as you see yourself with your present and future grandchildren and ask:

  • What will they remember about me?
  • How do I become a champion for them?
  • What legacy do I want to leave that will help light the path ahead of them in this jarring but joyful world?

“These are sobering questions that we’ll ponder together…even though we’re a bit wrinkled up, we can shine.”

This self assessment is a good one, but at a time when so many other daily factors seem insurmountable, greater help from organi­zations and churches such as The Salvation Army will continue to be needed.

Read more from the latest issue of SAconnects.