story by Angela Go
For more than 25 years, Georgia State University’s Project Healthy Grandparents (PHG) has assisted grandparents who are raising grandchildren in parent-absent homes through home visitation services. But since the COVID-19 virus outbreak began, the PHG nurses and social workers found inventive new ways to support the families in a virtual environment.
When parents are absent due to substance abuse, incarceration or death, grandparents often provide children with loving, secure homes, keeping them out of foster care. However, taking in grandchildren means tremendous sacrifices. Many grandparents are over age 60, living on a fixed income and battle chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. In the COVID-19 world, this puts grandparents into a high-risk category for serious complications from the disease.
Financial challenges in these vulnerable families are made worse with the virus. Children home from school mean more food consumed, stretching meager groceries further. Some working grandparents face reduced hours or layoffs. Others struggle with childcare issues as many childcare centers are closed. When the children are in school online, the grandparents need help navigating access to the internet and a new world of virtual learning.
PHG provides a safety net for grandparent-headed families, so it established an emergency assistance fund that has raised $85,000 to date. Much of the money goes to immediate needs, especially groceries, rent and utilities. Working with the Georgia State University Foundation, Tiffany McKesson, PHG administrative assistant, set up accounts to provide families with Kroger and Walmart gift cards used on groceries and other necessities.
When one PHG client’s kitchen stove stopped working in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, her PHG social worker gave her Walmart gift cards to buy a microwave and an electric skillet to keep cooking. PHG’s COVID-19 emergency fundraising program paid for the gift cards.
“We worked diligently early in the pandemic to raise the emergency funds to assist grandparents currently enrolled in the program and recent alumni,” said Susan Kelley, founder and director of PHG. Typically, grandparents only receive services for one year, but due to COVID-19, grandparents who finished the PHG program within the past year continue to receive social work care and other assistance.
“I’m most proud of how PHG has been able to use emergency assistance funds to help families avoid homelessness during this difficult time. Being able to stay in their home helps grandparents provide their grandchildren with much-needed stability,” said Kelley.
PHG nurses, all registered nurses and Georgia State doctor of nursing practice or Ph.D. nursing students provide care for the families. Instead of conducting in-home visits, the nurses call grandparents to assess their health. By phone, they screen the families for signs of COVID-19. Nurses provide thermometers and face masks and conduct additional telephonic screenings to help grandparents determine when they need to visit a doctor. Keeping medical appointments is key to treating many chronic health conditions, but grandparents may be afraid of going to the doctor and being exposed to COVID-19.
Social workers help the grandparents navigate a myriad of legal issues through PHG’s long standing partnership with Atlanta Legal Aid and boost the grandparent’s mental health. They conduct phone assessments and act as a go-between delivering paperwork in a socially-distance manner when grandparents have complex legal issues such as custody.
PHG offers support with monthly grandparent support group meetings, now all online via Zoom. Typically held on campus, these meetings feature outside speakers and specific parenting topics.
“We have had very good success holding the support groups on Zoom,” said Kelley. “Grandparent participation is high, so we plan to host the virtual meetings until it is safe to resume in person meetings.”
Kelley is pleased with many of the new ways that PHG meets the needs of its clients.
“Because of the pandemic, we have developed ways to deliver services remotely, which is more cost-effective. We plan to use some of these ways even after the pandemic ends,” she said.
Despite the challenges, the grandparents cope reasonably well. Like most families living in pandemic semi-quarantine, they enjoy more quality time with their grandchildren and learn new computer skills needed in the virtual world.
“The PHG grandparents are very resilient,” said Kelley. “They have faced more adversity than most people and have more experience and adaptability to weather the pandemic challenges.”
To give to the PHG fund, visit phg.lewis.gsu.edu.