While their contemporaries are enjoying their retirement years traveling, relaxing on the beach and spoiling their grandchildren rotten, grandmothers Patty Paranada and Judy Lawson round up all the energy they have left to chase their grandchildren around and raise them as their parents.
"We know what it is like to be just grandparents," said Lawson, 65, of Kihei who raises her 6-year-old granddaughter, Naomi. Lawson has "real" grandchildren in Phoenix.
"It is totally different from parenting," Lawson said. "It is a lot more fun."
Grandparents Patty and Sal Paranada of Kahului have become parents again, raising their grandchildren 9-year-old Micah (from left ), 7-year-old Jeremiah and 14-year-old Aaliyah.
"We cannot move fast enough. We have health issues. I cannot do the sports thing," said Paranada, 58, of Kahului, who is raising three grandchildren. "I don't have the energy to take them to their practices and their games."
Paranada and Lawson are among the estimated 1,400 grandparents who have taken responsibility for the grandchildren living in their households.
Heather Greenwood with University of Hawaii-Manoa Cooperative Extension, who came up with this data by extrapolating 2010 Hawaii census data, warned that the Maui County numbers are estimates and that more research needs to be done to capture the full scope of grandparents-as-parents.
"We have to nail down that information," said Greenwood, who is chairwoman of Hi'i Na Kupuna Coalition, which offers resources and support for grandparents raising grandchildren on Maui.
Last month, Greenwood prepared a report, titled "2010-2011 Needs Assessment Report," as a guiding document for the group for the next five years. Hi'i Na Kupuna Coalition was formed in 2004 by the county Office of Aging and UH Cooperative Extension to fill a community need for grandparent support groups. By 2009, with sufficient support groups in place, the coalition began exploring other activities to better meet the needs of grandparents and other relative caregivers, the report explained.
The report was based on 67 paper and online surveys and two focus groups attended by 15 grandparents. The survey respondents cared for 141 children, with 84 receiving full-time care. The term "grandparent" also included great-grandparents, foster parents and other relatives, though grandparents were the vast majority of the sample.
Among the findings of the report:
* Substance abuse was the top reason parents were not present in the household, in 13 of 50 responses to the question. Other reasons included parents living off-island for employment or deployment, jailed, deceased, divorced or ill.
* The average age of survey respondents was 59.8 years old. Thirty-one percent of the respondents were ineligible for financial assistance from the Maui County Office on Aging because they were under the 55 minimum age requirement.
* One-third of respondents were caring for at least one child with special needs.
* Forty-eight percent of the respondents had incomes of more than $40,000; 20 percent, $25,000 to $40,000; 16 percent $15,000 to $25,000; and 16 percent $15,000 or less.
* Native Hawaiians were over-represented, while Japanese and Filipinos were under-represented based on Hawaii's ethnic demographic.
* Grandparent respondents were longtime caregivers; most began caring for their grandchildren six to 10 years ago.
Culturally, grandparents taking custody of their grandchildren is considered socially acceptable, especially with the traditions of hanai and multigenerational families living in the same household, said Greenwood, who handles intergenerational and aging programs for the Cooperative Extension Service.
There is more gray area in the legalities of these "grandfamilies." In the report, nearly half of respondents reported "no formal legal relationship" with the grandchildren they were caring for. These grandparents without legal custody often will keep quiet and not avail themselves of community resources because they are afraid of losing their grandchildren to Child Welfare Services, Greenwood said.
Grandparents really have few rights without legal and physical custody of their grandchildren. They would have to prove a child's health and safety are in jeopardy and provide documentation of abuse or neglect to be able to remove a child from their parents, said Kayla Rosenfeld, state Department of Human Services communications specialist. Relatives, including grandparents, are considered when the child is removed from the home and foster care comes into play, she added.
Grandparents may be concerned about the safety of their grandchildren or worried that they are not receiving what they need, said Greenwood. "In that situation, they don't have legal rights," she said.
In most cases, though, grandparents are given care of their grandchildren with the consent of the parents, Greenwood said.
"A lot of the grandparents I see, they are the strongest and only advocate for the children," said Greenwood. "They are good mama bears and papa bears."
The lack of legal responsibility creates practical problems, especially when trying to enroll children in school, signing permission forms or making decisions for children with special needs. Greenwood said the school system has implemented policies for dealing with grandparents with differing levels of legal custody of their grandchildren, but the grandparents have to ask.
Lawson is one of those mama bears caring for a grandchild with special needs. Naomi has mental developmental delays and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and requires constant attention and supervision.
"She is an attention-seeking child," said Lawson, who cares for Naomi with her husband. "It's all encompassing. It can be overwhelming."
They are both retired, which is what is needed to care for their grandchild, said Lawson.
"It's hard. We don't have the energy we had when we were in our 30s," she said. "I get frustrated faster and my brain seems to stop."
Naomi's journey to Lawson's household began when the grandparents saw signs of neglect and abuse. Eventually, they moved to get physical and legal custody of Naomi.
Lawson said they looked at other options for Naomi besides taking her in themselves. Lawson had just fought off cancer, and the couple was looking forward to a relaxing life of retirement and traveling, but the choice came down to them or foster care.
"It fell to us, and the good lord wants us to do it," said Lawson.
Paranada's grandchildren fell into her family in similar fashion. Paranada said she became concerned about the care they were receiving at home. Eventually, the move to her household was done by mutual consent.
"I was thinking I wouldn't be able to sleep at night, not knowing where they were, not knowing if they were getting the best of care," she said. "I would just worry where they were."
Granddaughter Aaliyah, who is now 14, came first. Micah and Jeremiah, who were 2 and 1 at the time, were literally left on their doorstep.
"My jaw dropped and my eyes opened and my life flashed before me," said Paranada. "My husband and I said 'no more retirement.' We were both shocked. We didn't know what to do."
After the shock wore off and the reality that they were going to be parents again settled in, they made a plan. After the boys arrived, Paranada quit her job at Maui Family Support Services to care for the children and work out the legal issues.
Maui Family Support Services eventually hired her back - to set up support groups for grandparents.
Having the job and income was fine, but that meant working full time and taking care of three children. There would be making lunches in the mornings, getting them to their different schools and trying to keep up with them.
"It gets really difficult." she said. "I get tired. I want to put up my feet and relax, but I cannot."
Finances are tight, and she wonders about paying for college for the grandchildren. Still, Paranada knows she and her husband, Sal, made the right decision.
"They hug us. They tell us they love us. They always say 'thank you mama and papa for taking care of us.' . . . They make us feel appreciated.
"We gave up our lives to raise them and care for them.
. . . It's all worth it."
For more information about the coalition, contact Greenwood at 244-3242, ext. 226, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.