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Remember multigenerational households?

Published September 14. 2013 09:01AM

As we observed national grandparent's day, I used the occasion to interview three older women who are raising their young grandchildren.

In all three cases, the children's father is not in the picture and the mother is unable to raise the child.

The three grandmothers have assumed the role of custodial parent. They are driven by their love for their grandchildren and a desire to give them a loving, stable home.

They made it clear it's often difficult.

Plagued with health problems and racked with pain much of the time, Nancy says she has to push herself to keep going. "Sometimes my body is screaming to lay down but I don't do it until my grandson is in bed," she says.

At 73, Barbara says she sometimes worries about being in her 80s when her two granddaughters are still in their teens.

For Janet, her biggest worries are financial. Unable to work because of a disability and living on Social Security, she finds she "runs out of money before she runs out of month."

But all three say their grandchildren give them so much joy and they don't regret for one second their decision to raise them.

"They give us a grand purpose," says Nancy, making a play on words.

The three women met at the school bus stop and formed a fast friendship. Calling themselves "the Bus Stop Grannies," they give their phone numbers to the young mothers at the bus stop, offering to help when needed. And, they often are.

Sometimes that means giving another child a ride home.

Sometimes it means keeping a child for the day or overnight.

And sometimes it means pitching in to help a family during a crisis.

The Bus Stop Grannies know that changing family structure and job mobility often means a young mother has no family nearby to help her.

"When I was a kid it was common for three generations to live together. That meant a grandmother was always on hand to help. That has changed," Barbara says, "except when circumstances make living together a necessity."

As I sat having breakfast with these women, we reminisced about our own childhoods when generations lived together and helped each other.

Sociologists called it "multigenerational households."

We called it caring about family.

Unless you're a senior citizen, and an older one at that, you might not remember a time when many households in the neighborhood included a grandparent, parents and children.

Back then, fewer elderly folks were put into nursing homes. And there was no such thing as Assisted Living facilities.

Each generation assisted the other. A grandmother helped with child care while parents helped their own elderly parents.

I grew up in one of those multigenerational homes. When my grandfather died, my mother moved her mother into our house.

We had a lot of love between us and laughter was inevitable when we sat down to eat together.

But there were many problems, too.

My mother sometimes felt tied down, unable to do something like take a senior citizen bus trip with her friends. But there was no way she was going to see her mother go to a nursing home.

Although she had four sisters, my grandmother's care mostly fell on my mother- unless there was an emergency. My aunts could always be counted on to rally round when a family crisis came.

I remember several times growing up when my aunts provided a needed haven for my family.

When we moved "back home" to the coal regions from the Philadelphia area, my Aunt Mary took us in until my parents could buy a house. That meant adding four extra people to her small three-bedroom-home where the only bathroom was in the basement.

When I watch HGTV and see a young couple saying they "need" four bedrooms and three baths, I sometimes think back to that small house with one bathroom where we all thrived together.

Here's my theory: Through the years, our homes have gotten bigger but our hearts have gotten smaller. Our bathrooms have expanded and so have our "needs."

We say we need more space.

We need more closets.

We need a bigger home.

We need more privacy.

I wonder how many people today would be willing to share their home with extended family like my aunts did.

Years later, when my mother left my father, she had two young children and no place to go.

Again, another aunt stepped in, adding us to her small home. Aunt Rose had her teenage son sleep on a sofa so that my mom, my brother and I could squeeze into his bedroom.

I remember those days as being filled with so much love and laughter. My cousin never complained when he had to give up his bedroom.

For the year that we stayed there, we were wrapped in a blanket of family caring.

I knew then and continued to know with every passing year that "family" is a sacred word.

It brings its own comfort and its own joys. It also brings its own obligations.

Family means being there for each other, regardless of circumstances.

It means supporting each other through tough times.

It means making personal sacrifices when circumstances demand it of us.

And yes, sometimes it means raising grandkids when we are well beyond our parenting years.

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