COLUMN: Here's why we should care more about National Grandparents Day

CINCINNATI -- Whether you know it or not, today is National Grandparents Day.

Sure, it sounds like a made up holiday designed to sell greeting cards, flowers and chocolate-dipped something or other. Kind of like Sweetest Day -- what the heck is that?

But I’m beginning to think we should be taking Grandparents Day a lot more seriously.

Here’s why: I have interviewed a lot of grandmas and grandpas who are raising their grandkids at a time when they expected to be spoiling them instead.

The opioid epidemic is part of the reason, at least here in Greater Cincinnati. That’s how Jeanne Miller-Jacobs and her husband, John Jacobs, ended up taking responsibility for their three young grandchildren in 2012.

Jeanne Miller-Jacobs playing with her grandsons in 2015.

I met the couple in 2015, after they had been raising the little ones for about three years. Jacobs was watching the kids during the day while his wife worked. Then he would go to work part time at night. Miller-Jacobs said at the time that she couldn’t envision retirement for either of them any time soon.

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I called Miller-Jacobs to get an update, and I could almost hear her smile over the phone.

“You’re going to be surprised,” she said. “We transitioned the kids to their parents a year ago in August. It’s going surprisingly well.”

After four solid years of parenting their grandchildren, now Miller-Jacobs and her husband get to spoil little Kaylee, Leium and Jordan as much as they want. They still see all three of them most weekends, Miller-Jacobs said, and she’s thrilled with how well the kids -- and their parents -- are doing.

The sad part, she said, is that too few grandparents get to experience that joy.

“Unfortunately, we’re in the minority of success stories,” she said.

The story of grandparents raising their grandkids is far from a local phenomenon.

Millions nationwide

Across the country, 7.3 million grandparents had grandchildren under the age of 18 living with them in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Of that number, 2.6 million grandparents were responsible for the basic needs of one or more grandchild under the age of 18 living with them.

Most of those grandparents -- 1.6 million -- were grandmothers, and 1 million were grandfathers, according to the American Community Survey data.

Sadly, a sizeable percentage of those grandparents had income levels below the federal poverty level.

Nearly a quarter of them -- 509.922 -- were living below the federal poverty level in 2015, according to Census data. That translated into a household income of $20,090 for a family of three in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services federal poverty guidelines.

But the strains aren’t only financial.

I interviewed Barbara Coakley about how she’s raising her great-grandson, William, as part of a story I wrote about the local Hearts and Minds program that aims to encourage black boys to stay out of trouble and aim for higher goals in life.

RELATED: Local program encourages black boys to aim high

Coakley was nearly 78 when I first met her last year, and William was 14. It had been a long time since Coakley had raised a teenager, she told me, and the world William faces is a whole lot different than the world her own kids did.

William

William has gotten into some trouble, but Coakley was doing her best and was grateful that programs like Hearts and Minds were there to help.

“It definitely has a positive influence,” she told me at the time. “To see that you can make good choices.”

Let's throw in a couple of extra days, too

I know how tough it can be as a mom to steer my daughters in the right directions and how much I have counted on my own mom to help over the years. I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it would be if I were 20 or 25 years older and trying to do it all on my own.

But these days millions of grandparents across the country are managing their new responsibilities with love and patience. And unlike Miller-Jacobs and her husband, many of them have no hope of being “only” grandparents ever again.

I’m thinking here of the grandma and grandpa that Kevin Necessary and I met during our reporting for Childhood Saved, the online graphic novel we produced to tell the story of six children removed from their mother’s home because of abuse and neglect.

RELATED: Childhood Saved: How one call saved six kids
The grandmother of the oldest three kids and her husband ended up adopting her grandchildren.

Soon after a judge finalized the adoption, the girls’ mom overdosed and died. A few months after that, their dad died, too.

RELATED: Childhood Saved: Losing Mom, Dad within months

The grandparents already had committed to being permanent caregivers with the adoption. But the deaths meant helping their girls cope with their grief while they also were coping with their own.

Sadly, that’s not unusual either, Miller-Jacobs said.

“That changes the whole dynamics,” she said. “When they (the parents) are alive, you keep hoping that they’re going to turn their lives around. And when they pass away, that hope is gone.”

It’s one more reason to celebrate grandparents on National Grandparents Day, with a special nod to those who have taken on another generation of parenting.

In fact, let’s celebrate them on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, too.

Grandma, Grandpa and girls from Childhood Saved. Illustration by Kevin Necessary | WCPO

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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