Another Price of the Opioid Crisis: More Grandparents Are Raising Grandchildren

Dec 15, 2017

Christine Uljua and her grandson Zack.

More than 2,300 grandparents are raising their grandchildren in Barnstable County, according to a state report from 2016. Advocates for grandparents on Cape Cod point to the opioid crisis to explain why so many are skipping retirement and stepping up as parents once again.

Christine Uljua of East Falmouth found out she was a grandmother from an anonymous phone call eleven years ago.  “A message was left on my answering machine saying I was grandmother,” Ulja said. “And I had no idea who the party was who called.”

Her oldest son denied the baby was his and moved to Montana. When Uljua discovered the little boy’s mother used opioids while pregnant and after the birth, she filed for emergency custody of Zack.

They’ve been together ever since.

Uljua, now 65, is raising 11-year-old Zack as a single parent.

“He and I, we’re unusual," she said. "We’re not the typical family, and I tell him all the time that all families look different. There’s not one kind of family. I’m not assimilated into the community at school—I’m looked upon as different. People don’t know how to handle a grandparent raising a grandchild.”

That’s why Uljua joined a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support group. Twice a month she joins other grandparents at East Falmouth Elementary School. As the grandparents talk, the grandchildren play down the hall. Here, grandparents can say anything.

“It is a haven for them,” said Beverly Costa-Ciavola, an advocate who organizes the meetings. “They have a lot of angst and a lot of anger, and a lot of shame and guilt about their adult children. And they don’t have anywhere to talk about that except in these grandparent groups.”

Opioids, including heroin, killed 83 people last year in Barnstable County. That number has jumped sevenfold since 2000, the year the state began tracking opioid-related deaths.  Those dying are mostly men in their 30s. So it’s most often young parents getting addicted to painkillers—parents who are no longer capable of being dad or mom.

Kerry Bickford of Barnstable has served on the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren since 2009.

“The parents are doing a good thing by relinquishing control, and by allowing their parents to support them and their children,” said Bickford. “The grandparents are grief-stricken because they’ve lost their child in order to commit to this grandchild.”

For many grandparents work options are limited, and so is income. When the state places a child, the grandparent is sometimes reimbursed for foster-care expenses. That doesn’t apply to Uljua, who said she went through probate court to get custody of her grandson. When it comes to childcare costs, she’s on her own.

“It’s not what I thought my retirement would be like, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Uljua.

Last year the state reported most grandparents raising grandchildren are in their 50s, and still working outside of the home. Wendy Marks, a nurse practitioner living in Marstons Mills, is one of them.

Wendy Marks and her 4-year-old granddaughter.

A year ago, she began taking care of her four-year-old granddaughter. Marks's daughter is 27 and has been in treatment several times for opioid addiction.

“You have incredible stressors from watching your loved one—in my case, my one and only daughter—progressing to the point where I wonder if she’s going to be alive tomorrow," said Marks.      

She added that fighting her daughter’s disease is a balancing act between encouraging her to be mom and protecting the safety of the 4-year-old.

“My view is that the child needs to have a primary relationship with their parents, that I am her grandparent and I am the one who assumes care for her now," said Marks. "And that the parents come and take care of her when they are here.”

With both parents struggling with opioid addiction, Marks has ground rules during those visits: no alcohol or drugs in the home.

Bickford noted that setting these boundaries is a must.

“I’m really trying to get the grandparents to understand that their children need these hard limits, but they also need the love and the support in order to recover,” she said.

This is one of the great challenges facing grandparents already coping with a burden, said Costa-Ciavola.

“I think they run on instinct, and whatever is in their heart," she added. "They’re not thinking logically. They’re thinking, ‘Wow, this is my grandchild. And I don’t want them going anywhere else.’”

Costa-Ciavola says, as grandparents confront their own child’s addiction, those revisiting this unexpected chapter are often doing better than they think.