As a mid-70’s, semi-retired person, the problems I suffer with aging go hand in hand with the joys of being a grandparent – the latter compensating for the former, at least for a time. Recently, my wife and I as part of the Wellspring Institute conducted a series of counseling groups at a local senior center where among the various problems addressed, two issues involving aging and grandparenting were conjoined: seniors moving in with adult child(ren) and grandparents responsible for grandchildren abandoned to their care. I’ll speak into both from the experience of those groups.
Moving into an adult child’s home can be problematic for the child and the aging parent. That’s why, I suppose, it’s often avoided. What seems a “natural” solution to the costs and obligations of elderly care is far from simple in its relational realities. As a product of adulthood and separation, the amity achieved in the parent-child relationship can become precarious as old tensions re-awaken in a new context and on different terms. Aging simply complicates the matter. What was clear in our groups was that neither the adult child nor the parent can afford to be naïve about relational problems they will face – often not anticipated or prepared for.
An example gives a sense of the complexities involved. Many in our group were widows, and the death of a spouse meant living alone with health and independence increasingly precarious. Though all had relinquished parenting responsibilities, moving in with an adult child involved a dependency on that child that reversed former roles. For the senior, authority related to responsibilities became confused. To the extent she could be responsible for herself in practical matters – for meals, dressing, mobility, transportation, etc. – each activity came into question in terms of what she could or could not manage. Each became a potential source of friction.
Circumstances can also bedevil relationship. One widow, for example, had moved into her daughter’s home from a distant locale. To her surprise she found herself living as a “displaced person” – displaced from friends, from stores, from the familiar web of her former community. Without a “life” of her own, she experienced herself at the mercy of her children, and though they were caring and her basic needs were being met, the quality of her life as she had lived it was sharply diminished. While gratitude was in order for the care she received, in ways important to her sense of self and well-being the move seemed hardly worth it. The problem she presented in the senior group was how to re-construct a life for herself in the new setting or return to where she had lived before, in either case a move must now be negotiated with her children.
Ready access to grandchildren was to be the major benefit from the move, and she thought this would compensate for any losses. But she discovered that doting from a distance and seeing grandchildren occasionally on weekends was a quite different matter than being plopped without respite in the midst of a busy, work-a-day family. The non-stop noise of children and bustle of younger people’s lives was both stressful and invasive, particularly when her ability to state her needs, set boundaries and make demands was no longer based on the queenship of her own home. An added strain was living in close quarters with an in-law whose habits, tastes and values were born of a different upbringing . She found herself continually irritated, but felt powerless to protest. After all, what right did she have, it was his house. Jokes about mother-in-laws notwithstanding, they were not going to be about her.
These glimpses only hint at the root problem. Moving in with one’s adult child(ren) is not primarily about circumstance; it’s about relationship. And if relationship is based on difference – dealing with “otherness” more than sameness – differences in relationship require dialogue and negotiation if those differences are to become wedded and made tolerable for all. But dialogue and negotiation, in turn, depend on communication skills and these became the focus of our group.
The first and easier task was to construct a framework for mutual agreement between the parties, because neither the senior nor her child/landlord had thought this would be necessary in advance. “Love” was to conquer all, and whatever issues might arise would be dealt with along the way. But working out a post-facto mutual agreement about financial arrangements, privacy, boundaries, differences in values, parenting of grandchildren, neatness, noise, food, transportation, participation in the household, etc. – still required engagement in dialogue and negotiation by both parties around each point. It was the nitty-gritty of these relational issues that required the group’s support for the senior’s efforts to work this out. A major task was help her differentiate essential needs from negotiable wants in the context of original expectations and subsequent disappointments. This proved no easy matter, for the desire to ignore issues because of the conflicts they could engender was intrinsically related to why no such agreement had been formulated in the first place.
The focus on relational communication skills brought out other issues about self-assertion and empowerment that were difficult for the seniors addressing this problem. Some women had typically deferred to their husbands in order to keep peace. How could she speak out now about personal needs, when the primary focus of her life had been on meeting the needs of others? How could she stand in the tension of difference, foregoing temporary and even long-term discomfort, to arrive at mutually satisfying resolutions? What we faced as facilitators was the question whether or not an elderly person could learn new skills and engage in the hard work of arriving at win-win solutions. Needless to say it was a challenge for all of us in different ways. Though the group was time-limited in its scope, and the important work was just begun rather than completed, our experience underscored the critical need for ongoing support groups for seniors as an important component of their lives. Where else could they find sympathetic peers, who shared similar issues, and with whom they could commune, find friendship and obtain information, consult and support in facing what they had to face
If being a grandparent is compensatory to the problems of aging, what of grandparents who have primary responsibility for grandchildren abandoned to their care? What of grandparents who instead have become parents? In each case we encountered, drug addiction was the cause of their adult children being declared parentally incompetent. The impact of drug addiction is multi-generational in many cases, affecting both children and grandparents up and down the genealogical line. For grandparents the first problem is practical – the need of state support for services for the children and some modicum of financial support for themselves as “foster” parents.
This support in many cases is a necessity, because grandparents are usually limited in their ability to work and support themselves, let alone support a family of younger children. In our senior group, there were two instances with different histories related to this problem. One younger grandmother had acted shrewdly on advice and resisted taking her grandchildren into her home. She used her willingness to do so as leverage to obtain an agreement from the state to provide the services she knew the children would need for as long as such services might be needed. The main items involved schooling, treatment and medical expenses along with support for foster care.
Another set of grandparents had acted from their hearts, stepping into the crisis immediately to assume responsibility for the children. This was unwise as it turned out. By acting precipitously for the sake of the children, but without legal consult or advice, the couple had unwittingly relinquished their leverage to with the state to provide necessary services and financial support. A critical element was convenient day-care for the children so the grandparents could continue working to support their new family.
What both cases illuminate is the travesty that governmental support has become. Government agencies are bureaucratic and operate by rule, rather than by relationship, and money tends to rule the day. Though individual case workers are often compassionate and caring, they are regulated by form and by an authority structure that is increasingly remote from the people problems at hand. This was another case where “no good deed goes unpunished.” We offered consultation and advice but found there was no ready recourse. The only clout these grandparents, now parents, had was to threaten the state with abandoning the children, sending them to a state supported “safe home” or to foster care. Because they were unwilling to risk the attachment injury that might accrue to these already wounded children if their threat proved unsuccessful, for the time being they deferred. Again, love and concern for the children was an obstacle these grandparents weren’t willing to overcome. The state apparently had no such relational concerns.
Having taken responsibility for the children, the grandparents were plagued by other relational issues perhaps more difficult to resolve. The addicted mother wanted to maintain contact with her children, and the grandparents initially were willing to support that, not wanting to injure an already wounded attachment. However, because the grandparents were now responsible for disciplining the children, the mother now freed of that responsibility brought them presents with each visit to assuage her guilt. This set up a difficult good-guy/bad-guy split between the mother and the grandparents – a painful dilemma which required confrontation of the mother with the risk of alienating the children. There was also the ongoing threat of the mother reclaiming the children when she was temporarily clean of drugs but still living the life-style of a substance abuser. The grandparents had no trust in the state to either understand or support them in this dilemma, when the overriding objective for the state was expedience in finding “permanence” for the children.
Being grandparents many times over, we found ourselves bemoaning the burdens and losses that had befallen these folks. Their hope for a well-earned retirement had been compromised because of the love they bore for their grandchildren. But they had also sacrificed that particular richness that comes of being a grandparent, born of the freedom to come and go, recoup, dote from a distance, and offer that particular kind of love that can come from relinquishing parenting responsibilities. Instead, these grandparents had become parents again, but in a way that would test them severely as they looked toward an uncertain future.
What we learned from these groups, if learning was needed, was that each of these seniors needed all the help they could get, whether that was peer support, relational skill-building, advocacy with state agencies, or financial assistance where warranted. Mostly, they needed counsel to look before they leap; and whether that leap was in love and naivete, the joys of grandparenting might be at stake.
The Arch Bridge School at Wellspring is participating in the Stop & Shop A+ School Rewards Program. Through March 19, 2015, we can earn CASH through this exciting program each time our parents and friends shop at any Stop & Shop store.
You can help!
Log on to Stop & Shop’s website to register your card online. Then, each time you shop at any Stop & Shop using your STOP & SHOP Card, you will earn cash for our school! You can track the amount of points you earn for our school by checking your grocery receipt. Wellspring will receive a check at the end of the program and the money can be used for any of our school’s educational needs!
The money we earned last year helped us purchase many supplies for our classrooms!
Taking just a minute of your time to register can make a huge difference to our school. We need your support! Don’t forget to encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.
On June 24th, Wellspring honored 11 Arch Bridge School seniors as they embark on their new journeys to colleges, universities, and jobs near and far – even including a student exchange program in Japan. All of the 11 graduates have been accepted into colleges and universities where they plan to continue their education.
Unique and special at the annual Arch Bridge School (ABS) graduation ceremonies is that graduating students are invited to speak to the audience, sharing experiences, expressing appreciation, imparting lessons learned, and recognizing anyone special who has contributed to their progress during their time at Wellspring. Graduates also choose which teacher writes a speech in their honor and presents their diploma.
A central theme was clear throughout many speeches that the graduating seniors delivered: the students were profoundly grateful for their experience at the Arch Bridge School and for what they had gained as a result. Faced with many struggles, obstacles and challenges prior to attending ABS, several students believed they would not make it to their graduation day and called Wellspring a lifesaver.
One of the graduates shared, “This school, these staff, these teachers and these kids…This is home to me. It was at this school that I learned who I am. I am not kidding when I say you are a lifesaver. Honestly, without you, there is no way I would be where I am today.”
The students have done the difficult work, clinically and academically, created healthy lives and now see a bright new world and a shining future. “You took me by the hand and held it until I was ready to let go,” another graduate said in her speech.
Attendees at the commencement include all students, residents, their families, teachers, behavioral specialists, administrators including Wellspring’s co-founders, Richard and Phyllis Beauvais, and residential staff. At such an intimate and special celebration almost every employee is in attendance to hear the speeches and cheer on the graduates.
Breakdown of Graduates by Program:
1 Beauvais House (Adolescent Residential)
1 Transitional Program (Adolescent Residential Alum)
2 Angelus House (Adult Residential Program)
7 Day School (includes 2 Alum of the Adolescent Residential Program)
Grade 8 Moving Up:
2 Day School
2 Shiloah House (Children’s Residential)
Graduates were Accepted to the Following Schools:
New England College
New York University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Western Connecticut State University
University of Connecticut
University of Illinois
University of Maryland
University of New Hampshire
University of Rhode Island
University of Vermont
Northwest, Norwalk, Tunxis and Westchester Community Colleges
Congratulations to our graduating class of 2014! In the words of Dr. Seuss, whom one of our graduates quoted in her commencement speech, “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”
New Women’s Group in Middlebury, CT
A Journey to Discovering Your True Self
Beginning October 7 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
WELLSPRING COUNSELING SERVICES, 850 Straits Turnpike, Middlebury, CT
A 12-week series of group workshops designed to help guide women as they explore creativity, self awareness, and inner spirit. This group will work from the book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron and will examine a different theme each week. The series encourages personal growth, empowerment, and confidence among participants.
Facilitated by Renee Alberino, LMFT.
About Renee: Renee Alberino is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who enjoys working with groups, individuals, couples and families. She sees clients at Wellspring Counseling Service’s Middlebury office and is a certified Gestalt therapist.
Registration Information: Participants must pre-register and reservations will be taken on a first-come-first-served basis. The group is limited to 10 participants. The cost will be $250 for the 12-week series, which includes a copy of the book, supplies and refreshments.
To register, please contact Wellspring Counseling Services at 203-758-2296.