Amid A Coronavirus Pandemic, How Are Arizona Grandparents Raising Grandkids Coping?

By Kathy Ritchie
Published: Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 7:01am
Updated: Monday, February 22, 2021 - 1:00pm

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Coverage of aging is supported in part by AARP of Arizona

Nearly 60,000 Arizona children are being raised by their grandparents. But with the coronavirus pandemic and calls for older adults to stay away from public spaces and practice social distancing, how are Arizona's “grandfamilies” coping with what feels like an impossible situation at times?

Barbara Covey lives in a full house. She’s a mother of two and a grandmother to three — and they all live under the same roof. Covey says they range in age from 10 to 17.

Covey is 56. Her husband is 62. And like many older Arizonans, they’re worried about the coronavirus.

"We have health concerns because we're old and I have asthma, I have had it all my life," she said. "And my husband is, you know, older and susceptible to infections."

The Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors is a statewide support and legislative advocacy network of, by and for grandparents raising grandchildren and non-parent caregivers raising children.

But Covey and her husband can’t isolate themselves from this strange new world. They have children to raise. But she’s had a hard time explaining to them that this time away from school and their usual routine is not an extended vacation and is quite serious.

"My one teenager wanted to meet up with her friends," said Covey. "And I said no. And you're not going anywhere."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, can be especially severe in people over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions — though younger people are also at risk of getting seriously ill.

→ List Of Resources For Arizona Seniors Amid The Coronavirus Outbreak

"So, we are isolating, and it's pretty miserable," said Covey

Because the reality is, if a grandparent were to contract the virus and something were to happen to them, who would take care of these grandchildren? In fact, more than 7 million children nationwide are raised by grandparents or other relatives, according to Generations United, a family advocacy group. 

Sherry Griffin is the kinship support coordinator at Benevilla, a family resource center in the West Valley. She’s also raising her grandchild, so she understands those very real fears. 

Sherry Griffin and her granddaughter, Morgan
Sherry Griffin
Sherry Griffin and her granddaughter, Morgan, at the Grand Canyon.

But there are other concerns, and they’re not always easy to navigate. For example, just last week, the Arizona Department of Child Safety was still allowing in-person visits between parents and their children. 

That frightened a grandmother Griffin works with, "because she told the DCS caseworker she was not going to let the kids go to the center to visit with the parents because again, she has lupus and her mom's in poor health again, you know, so that is an issue," said Griffin.

DCS is now working to facilitate visitations between children with their parents via teleconferencing using apps like Skype. Griffin says while that’s a step in the right direction, it’s easier said than done.

"They've already got the kids 24/7, and they're, they're trying to work through this new process, but there's no one coming to their home to install the apps," she said. "There's nobody coming there to show them what to click on or what to do."

And the stress is mounting for many of these grandfamilies, "because there's a lot of them that have three, four or five, six kids," she said. "So can you imagine trying to figure out homework for each of the children when the internet may be  a new world to them, you know, so, they're that most of them are really giving it their best effort. "

While trying to maintain some semblance of routine, which is critical especially for those kids who have experienced trauma. It helps them know what’s going to happen next, even when — these days — the adults in the room do not.

"That's one of the triggers is being unsure. Dealing with the unknown, and I'm sure a lot of them they're saying, 'OK, so they may not know a lot about the virus, but they know something's wrong,'" said Griffin

And that uncertainty takes a toll. Even for those who try to adhere to a very strict routine, like Covey. 

"It's really difficult to be a therapist 24/7 when you're trying to be calm, and then you're also scared yourself."
— Barbara Covey

"Yeah, It's really difficult to be a therapist 24/7 when you're trying to be calm, and then you're also scared yourself."

In the meantime, support groups have been cancelled, but Griffin and others who support these families are checking in, and Covey is using social media to stay connected with other grandparents during this time. 

Hear more about Arizona's grandfamilies on KJZZ's Hear Arizona podcast series on aging

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