Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

12/25/2011 01:32 pm ET | Updated Feb 24, 2012

If you're about to become a grandparent, there are all kinds of things you need to know about grandbabysitting.

Babies should sleep on their backs, not their stomachs, grandparents-to-be learned recently in a class just for them at a northern Virginia hospital. Drop-side cribs are a no-no. When bathing the little darling, save the head for last to prevent chills.

And the most important rule, according to The Washington Post article? Butt out when you disagree with the new parent about tactic, technique or philosophy.

My question is, how about the millions of grandmas and grandpas who can't afford to butt out, who raise grandchildren because their own children can't or don't want to? Let's give these women and men a shout out this holiday season.

These "grands" can't give little Martin back to Mommy or Daddy when it's approaching their tee time on the golf course. They can't reschedule a weekend visit when they feel themselves coming down with a cold. They have to make sure baby Maggie gets her booster shots and 12 years later, finishes her algebra homework. They may have to post bail for a grown son or scramble to find the address of a daughter-in-law to whom they can send Christmas photos.

Seven million grandparents live with grandchildren, according to U.S. Census data from 2010, and about 2.7 million are responsible for those children. Raising grandkids takes its toll: These grands have more physical disabilities and depression than their peers. They also have slightly higher rates of heart disease.

Their job can be particularly hard when they see no end to it.

"Just at the age when they should be seriously saving money for retirement, they have to start saving for college," says Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, a national organization that focuses on intergenerational strategies to improve the lives of children, youth and older adults.

I was reminded recently of how important grands are when I received a Facebook message from a young woman whose story I told in my book about young adolescents, Our Last Best Shot. Alana Perales was 11 when I met her in 1996. She and her 14-year-old sister Angela were being raised in a small town in southwest Kansas by their grandparents Martha, a cook at the local senior citizens' center, and Louis, a maintenance man.

The girls' mother, daughter-in-law of Martha and Louis, battled a drinking problem. She ran off to live in Texas before Alana and Angela enrolled in school. The girls' father, an oil rig worker, maintained a home in town but moved around a lot. Martha and Louis, in their late 60's, assumed the job of raising the girls at least through high school.

That proved a challenge in a one-movie-theater town where the most popular weekend night activity was drinking and smoking pot under a county bridge. The teen pregnancy rate in town was the second highest in the state, a fact that Martha worried about a lot. The first day I met Martha, she had just returned from a party for a 15-year-old friend of Angela's who was seven months' pregnant with twins.

Like so many grands in her position, Martha was haunted by worry that she hadn't been a good enough mother to her son. She second-guessed her decisions as a grandmother, especially once the girls entered the challenging years of middle school.

She was desperate. But she also was smart. She enlisted other people to help: a younger son who went to work at the middle school the girls' attended, a physician who never turned her family away when money was tight, a school bus driver who made sure an adult was home before letting the girls off the bus, her husband's boss who provided the family with a freezer full of beef each year.

Realizing she had a lot to learn about the younger generation, she listened carefully to what the younger parents of other girls talked about. She tried -- usually without success -- to remember the names of the rock bands that Angela and Alana listened to.

Her biggest challenge was helping her granddaughters negotiate the on-off relationship with their parents. Their father occasionally asked them to stay with him overnight, only to renege when a new job came up. The girls' mother in Texas would say she was coming for a visit, then not appear. Martha learned to encourage her girls to vent their frustration and anger. "We talk and cry and talk and cry again," she told me at the time I was reporting their story.

This week, I called Martha after receiving Alana's Facebook message. Martha, now 80 and a widow, said Alana ran away before finishing high school but returned recently after an almost nine-year absence. Alana works at two jobs, Martha said proudly, and lives with a boyfriend in the house next door to Martha's, of all places.The oldest granddaughter Angela has a seven-year-old son. She's employed, recently married, and is coming to visit over the holidays.

Grandparents like Martha are an underserved population, but that may be changing. Recently, the National Institute of Nursing Research, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, awarded a $2.5 million grant to four universities to explore the effects of several interventions designed to help these grandparents.

It's about time.