Their stories are as varied as the children they tend: Death claimed a daughter; drugs claimed a son; crushing financial circumstances pushed the grandchildren's parents into long-distance jobs.
The details are different, but the end result is the same: More and more grandparents are finding themselves for the second time around as the head of a household, raising a second set of children at a time of life when conventional expectations ranged from languid days in a rocking chair to more rounds on the golf course.
"I wouldn't wish this on anyone," said Mary Lou Wetzel of South Fayette, who has been raising her grandsons, ages 14 and 16, since the younger one was 8 weeks old.
"I love those boys like crazy, but this is hard on everyone, including them," she said.
Lingering problems from a high school car accident left her daughter unable to care for the kids, and marital problems translated to an absent father who is physically disabled. "When we initially took the boys, we thought it was temporary. But it didn't turn out that way." Now, at age 66, Mrs. Wetzel and her husband, Lee, 72, find themselves responsible for another set of children after having raised five, she with three and he with two.
The challenges range from financial to emotional, Mrs. Wetzel said.
"You can never imagine everything that you'll have to confront, from trying to get health insurance to dealing with the teary eyes because there's a school activity going on that involves moms and dads," she said.
Amy Goyer, an Arizona-based multigenerational and family issues expert with AARP -- the nation's largest organization for senior citizens-- said the Wetzels represent a growing demographic, a demographic she and others interested in the issue refer to as "grandfamilies."
According to grandfactsheets.org, an Internet-based site overseen by Ms. Goyer and produced by a partnership of various nonprofit stakeholders that include AARP, the Children's Defense Fund and Generations United, 5.8 million children are living in grandparents' homes in the U.S. More than 2.5 million grandparents have responsibility for these children -- 1 million of whom are in homes where neither parent is present.
"We certainly see this as an increasing trend. The issues driving people to be in this situation range from substance abuse to military deployment to divorce to death to mental illness to the economy. And those drivers aren't going away," Ms. Goyer said.
The top challenges that are particular to grandfamilies are financial, legal, health, housing and education, with financial and legal claiming the top two spots that concern grandparents.
"While this issue cuts across socioeconomic levels, there seem to be consistently financial and legal issues associated with grandfamilies," Ms. Goyer said. The financial concerns involve balancing limited incomes -- sometimes incomes that are based on fixed resources such as pensions and Social Security -- against the costs of private insurance, school supplies and basic needs. The legal issues can be sticky, too, she said. Securing guardianship via the foster care system, for example, entails putting the children in the control of the state. Formalizing the relationship via adoption can entail collateral emotional issues that can cause behavior and mental health problems.
Although the top priority depends on the particular family, Ms. Goyer said research consistently bears out that the single greatest way to help grandfamilies is by providing a vehicle to inform them about local resources. "What are the systems that are in place in the local area? Linking grandfamilies to those systems is the most important thing we can do," she said.
That's exactly what Sister Georgine Scarpino thought when she secured approval in 2007 from the Sisters of Mercy to create a new ministry for grandparents in Pittsburgh. It led to support groups in Bridgeville and McKeesport called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
The need for the support has never waned, although the numbers of participants shift.
The Bridgeville group, which formed a year ago, recently dropped to two families after one grandmother got a job when her granddaughter started first grade. "As much as they need support, it's hard for some of these grandparents to get to the meetings because they are so busy," she said.
She recounted a story of a man who called in September seeking help after the death of his daughter. "He found himself needing to take care of his two small grandchildren. He left his job to take care of them and he needed services. When I got back to him, I found out he had had a nervous breakdown and his brother had the children," recounted Sister Scarpino, who lives in Greenfield.
She said she has seen time and again that grandparents who step into the role of parent for a second time find that they don't know how to access the social service system they often need so acutely. That's the No. 1 goal of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, followed closely by emotional support.
"One person needs to know how the school district works -- they're so different today than they were when they were raising their own children. Someone else needs medical insurance. Someone else needs someone to talk to because they feel that they failed in raising their own children and they're afraid they won't do a good job with these kids. The cases are individual, but there's a lot of commonalities: financial, legal, medical, school," she said.
Lisa McCorkle of Elizabeth, community services program manager for Auberle at McKeesport, has been the facilitator for the McKeesport Grandparents Raising Grandchildren for three years and sees the same issues arise repeatedly.
"There's a need for information and support. It can be as simple as, 'Hey, there's a way to put a parent-block on the computer' and 'I understand what you're going through' to more complicated things like how to get Medicaid or wrap-around services from the school," Ms. McCorkle said.
She shifts between tapping her own knowledge as a social service caseworker and as a facilitator who brings in other experts for monthly meetings, depending on the needs of her membership, the number of which is constantly changing but hovers around 20.
Topics include help with budgeting, the pros and cons of the foster care system, rules about utility shutoff, wellness for all ages and mental health services.
"The biggest thing we accomplish is letting our grandparents know they are not alone," she said.
It's a sentiment echoed by 71-year-old Delores Gambrill, one of the members. After raising four biological children (another died in infancy) and four adopted children, she's sharing her three-bedroom McKeesport home with two grandchildren: Sana West, 23, daughter of Rhonda West, who died in 1989 at age 23, and Jared Gambrill, 12, son of Donita Gambrill, 28, who has an array of health problems that include sickle cell anemia and a recent double amputation of her legs. Mrs. Gambrill has had custody of the boy since birth.
Mrs. Gambrill said she hesitates to call her situation "difficult" but said she's grateful for the support of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
"I love kids. I've always loved kids, and I love having them in my house now. I teach them right from wrong, and in this modern world of technology, things are different than they used to be, but I try to keep the good values in front of them," she said, noting that she realizes it's important to keep Jared busy with church-based activities such as Bible studies and basketball so he doesn't fall prey to the drug activity of the streets. "I didn't have any problems with my granddaughter, and I'm not wanting any with my grandson," she said.
Mrs. Gambrill said she feels luckier than most in her shoes because she has worked as a counselor with kids from troubled homes so she understands their needs and she also has the support -- both financial and emotional -- from her older, grown children.
If she has a particular worry, it's about keeping pace. She acknowledges that the years continue to gain on her despite her daily exercise routine and her efforts to eat healthy. "I know my kids will fill in where they need to, but it's in the back of my mind," she said. But, with a motto of "look at the bright side," she said she tries to enjoy as much of her situation as she can. "In a way, it was harder when he was a baby and he was taking his first steps. Now, I don't have to chase him around." She said that sharing her experiences in a grandparenting group gives her an emotional support system that helps keep a smile on her face.
One of her buddies at the group, Della Meekins, also of McKeesport, said she's helping her son, John, with his two children -- John Jr., 16, and Jonette, 13 -- because her son works long hours. They've been living together about two years. "I get them off to school. I try to see that they have something to eat when they get home," she said.
For the 83-year-old, it's a challenge some days -- and one she's had a couple of times before, raising granddaughters due to the death of a daughter and the divorce of another daughter. She had the help of her husband, William B. Meekins Sr., a minister who died in 2003. They were married 50 years and raised 11 children.
"I think things are different now. When I was raising my kids, you had more of a system of children going to church and people sitting down and having meals together. There's not as much togetherness now. And there's more violence. I have worries about children getting mixed up with the wrong crowd," she said.
Helping to raise her grandchildren puts her in a difficult position because, she said, "I'd like to have certain rules, but they're not really mine and I don't have all the control. I think they shouldn't be on the phone or on Facebook so they can get more sleep, but it's not all my say," she said.
Swapping stories with other grandparents who share a home with the younger generation "gives us a chance to fill everybody in," Mrs. Meekins said. "We can discuss things with each other. Everybody's situation is different. You can get something from each person and you can give something to each person."
Ms. Goyer of AARP said community groups such as Grandparents Raising Grandchildren are "a saving grace. They're crucial."
Mrs. Wetzel, who attends the Bridgeville group, said she feels that she has been able to "let down the guard and be honest. There are times you don't want to say anything to your closest friends because they're not in this situation. They're empty nesters. But when you're in a room with other people sharing similar experiences, you can laugh and you can be tearful. Mostly, you can be honest."
Karen Kane: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-9180.