As families throughout the New River Valley celebrate Grandparent’s Day today, many deal with often unforeseen and unique circumstances.
Nationally, approximately 2.4 million grandparents are raising 4.5 million children. In Virginia alone, 59,464 grandparents have stepped into the role of primary parents for their grandchildren, with approximately six percent of children statewide being raised by a grandparent.
Although this is often a welcome challenge for many families, the responsibility can also bring stress. Researchers at Virginia Tech recently found that many grandparents are unlikely to seek financial, nutritional or emotional support for their situation.
"Grandparents step in when there are problems with the grandchild’s parents, such as drug use, incarceration, abuse, and neglect, among other problems," said Megan Dolbin-MacNab, assistant professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, and faculty affiliate for the Center for Gerontology. "Some grandparents take on the role as parent informally, while others become a formal foster parent or legal guardian."
Dolbin-MacNab’s recent research focused on grandchild well-being and relationship dynamics within the grandparent-headed family. "Grandchildren are often very grateful for their grandparents’ sacrifice and are aware of what life would have been like if their
grandparents had not stepped in," she said. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Dolbin-MacNab said she sees challenges.
"Grandparents may have age-related health issues, and some may experience serious depression or psychological distress. Finances are often a significant source of stress because grandparents may not be employed or may be on fixed incomes. There may also be legal difficulties related to obtaining custody or guardianship," she said. "In addition, due to the circumstances that brought them into their grandparents’ care, grandchildren can have serious physical and psychological problems that grandparents must address.”
Despite these challenges, many grandparents are not seeking social support services.
In particular, grandparents may not be accessing support services related to nutritional needs. Dolbin-MacNab’s research suggests that some grandparents raising grandchildren may have difficulty affording nutritious foods, while others may be unaware of guidelines for healthy eating, especially for young children.
To confront this situation, Dolbin-MacNab and Elena Serrano, associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech, have embarked on a two-year project, supported by a $253,984 grant from Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Food Programs.
The project aims to discover ways that the Virginia Department Health’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Community Nutrition Services can better reach and serve the needy, young children being raised by grandparents.
WIC officials approached Virginia Tech about the project and Dolbin-MacNab, whose research has focused on grandparent-headed families, and Serrano, who has studied community nutrition programs, food security, and WIC were quickly pulled into the project.
Dolbin-MacNab and Serrano will use a variety of methods to talk to WIC staff, professionals from community and state agencies, grandparents who are using WIC, and other grandparents raising grandchildren.
"Through this project, we want to learn best practices for serving grandparent-headed families with nutritional needs and what the barriers are to grandparents and grandchildren using WIC," said Dolbin-MacNab.
Research indicates that overcoming barriers to using support services is essential. "Barriers might be something obvious, like a lack of transportation or childcare. However, grandparents might be so worried that someone will judge their family situation or parenting skills that they won’t seek assistance," said Dolbin-MacNab.
Results from the project will provide insight into the nutritional status and needs of grandparent-headed families and assist WIC in delivering services and educating grandparents.
Additionally, the project will produce educational and outreach materials for WIC, as well as training materials for WIC staff on how to engage and serve grandparent-headed families.
For more information on the WIC program in Pulaski, contact the Health Department at 994-5030.