Grandparents raising grandchildren reap rewards from GRANDcares program

Janis Rouff and her family

From left to right: Ed Scappell, Janis Rouff, Jeff Bouck, Hannah Bouck

Janis Rouff has three children: two adult sons and an 18-year-old daughter who is biologically her granddaughter.

“Raising a grandchild is an enormous responsibility and a definite life-changer,” says Rouff, 72, who has had a lot of experiences in her life.

Among those experiences was raising her grandchild, Hannah, who was born two months premature into poverty to parents who struggled to take care of themselves and their newborn child. 

Few interventions exist to help grandfamilies adapt to their unique circumstances. A team of researchers from Colorado State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa created GRANDcares, an evidence-based project developed to improve grandparents and grandchildren’s quality of life. Rouff was both a participant and co-facilitator in the program.

“I feel I have always been true to my core beliefs and values,” says Rouff. “Among those values high on my list are protecting and helping people who seem to need my help.” 

This has led her down many roads, including raising her granddaughter and helping her adult son, Jeff, who has a disability, to do his best to be Hannah’s dad despite the challenges he has faced.

At 18 years old and a senior in high school, Jeff had a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

“Jeff is the most devoted and loving father I’ve ever seen, but he also has a lot of problems and could not support her on his own,” says Rouff.

At 32, Jeff moved into his mother’s home with his 18-month-old daughter.  Now in his 40s, Jeff requires help from Rouff and her husband. They provide a place for him and Hannah to live. They have raised Hannah as their own child since she was an infant.

We were both very busy with careers and a lot of other activities, but it was clear to both of us that nothing mattered more than helping these two vulnerable people who we both loved,” says Rouff, who was a speech-language pathologist for more than 20 years and then got a Ph.D. in special education administration at Gallaudet University, the only university that gears all of its programs to deaf and hard of hearing people. 

After many years of work in the field of disabilities and 15 years of teaching at George Washington University, she retired early and moved to Colorado in 2011. 

“I’m very happy with my life and continue to learn new ways to handle the ups and downs, and dramas, of being a parent,” Rouff says.

While there have been positive experiences raising Hannah, Rouff admits that there have also been many challenges and life changes involved in raising their grandchild. 

Grandfamilies receive help from the GRANDcares project

Christine Fruhauf portrait
Christine Fruhauf

Hannah is one of nearly three million children in the United States who are being raised by their grandparents.

Children end up in the care of their grandparents for various reasons, often experiencing trauma in the process. As a result, these children may face significant behavioral and physical health issues.

Important benefits come from grandchildren being in their grandparents’ care, including protection against trauma and resilience promotion. Despite the beneficial role grandparents play in their grandchildren’s lives, grandparents face significant challenges of their own, including physical, mental, and emotional health issues; a lack of resources; and social isolation.

“I guess if we had not had this opportunity – and I mean it that way, it’s a real opportunity to make a difference in a grandchild – I might have not retired early, we would have more money at this age, we might still live in Maryland, my husband and I would travel more and have more times for ourselves,” says Rouff. “But on the other hand, I would have worried constantly about Jeff and Hannah, and I might have become involved in some other kind of rescuer relationships because that’s who I am.”

The GRANDcares project, which has now come to an end after five years, was based on family resilience theory. The theory focuses on strengthening resilience in both grandparents and grandchildren by providing them an intervention. The program also provided an educational component for service providers who work with grandfamilies using a strengths-based approach.

“Grandparents and grandchildren experience grief and loss,” says Christine Fruhauf, the principal investigator of GRANDcares. “They wanted to be fun and loving grandparents, but they can’t be because they have to be the parents. Grandchildren miss their parents and want to be typical.”

Fruhauf and her team, including Lori Yancura, the principal investigator of this project at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa,  adapted the Powerful Tools for Caregivers program, an evidence-based self-care education program for caregivers, to address the strengths and needs of grandparents raising grandchildren. 

Their Powerful Tools for Caregivers-Grandfamilies intervention classes were implemented over six weeks for two hours a week. 

Throughout the intervention, grandparents raising grandchildren developed self-care tools to recognize their emotions, set goals, change negative self-talk, deal with difficult feelings, solve problems, communicate their needs, and make tough caregiving decisions.

I learned that in a family, each person’s perspective is valuable, and sometimes it’s best just to say what I observe in a conflict situation and not to offer my own analysis or suggestions,” says Rouff, who uses that strategy often with her granddaughter to defuse a heated argument. “I tell her what I see and try to listen to her perspective. I think that’s pure gold with teenagers, especially.”

Participants in the GRANDcares project often comment about the importance of finding other grandparents who understand their experiences. Many grandparents in the project build and sustain a network of friends and support after completing the program. 

“I always felt understood by the other grandparents, and hopefully, I was able to give them support and understanding too,” says Rouff, who not only participated in the program as a grandparent but also as a co-facilitator. “One of the last classes I led was particularly compatible, and we continued to meet once a month as an informal support group until the pandemic forced us to stay home.”

The facilitator team was made up of a grandparent and a professional in the community who was a case manager or mental health provider. This allowed the cohorts to identify with their facilitators in different ways.

Grandparents weren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. The GRANDcares team developed the GRANDcares Youth Club for the grandchildren being raised by grandparents. 

The Youth Cub curriculum was based on 4-H Positive Youth Development Theory. It provided hands-on learning activities, youth engagement, and opportunities to develop relationships with caring adults, develop leadership skills, and make connections between content and life.

The program ran concurrently with the Powerful Tools for Caregivers-Grandfamilies program. Like their grandparents, the grandchildren developed tools for communication, self-care, leadership skills, critical thinking, goal setting, and resilience. 

“It’s really helpful for real life, it taught you how to use different tools,” said a youth club participant. “I used to be really shy, but now since I’ve been here, I’ve been learning how to talk to other people, and I’ve made a lot of new friends.”

According to the GRANDcares team, youth club participants appreciated making friends with other peers raised by grandparents. Many wanted to continue getting together after the youth club ended. 

As a co-facilitator, Rouff observed that the youth enjoyed the programs. Her granddaughter did not participate in the project but did befriend a child in the neighborhood who was also in a grandfamily. 

The GRANDcares project was offered in Colorado and Hawaii. In Colorado, they served 114 grandparents in 17 cohorts, caring for a total of 175 grandchildren. In Hawaii, they served 35 grandparents in 10 cohorts who cared for a total of 68 grandchildren. 

Grandparents reported continued use of class tools six months after classes ended. According to Fruhauf, the tools helped grandparents manage stress and strain related to raising grandchildren and make changes in their health behaviors. 

The GRANDcares project was also created to strengthen service providers’ knowledge of grandfamilies and provide tools to support grandparents and grandchildren.

The project team created 12 webinars for service providers and shared them on the GRANDcares website. Topics included strengths-based approaches to grandfamilies, working with grandfamilies, trauma and resilience, self-care for service practitioners, microaggressions, and reflection from GRANDcares coordinators and the project team. 

The webinars have been viewed over 240 times and will remain on the website to ensure service providers have the opportunity to learn more about grandfamilies. 

Future directions

Now that the project has ended, the team plans to develop intervention booster classes to address specific grandfamily needs such as parenting teens, relationships with the middle generation, and drug and alcohol prevention. 

Fruhauf feels good about the outcomes. What they learned showed that the project is promising.

“It sets us up for a randomized control trial,” says Fruhauf. “My goal is to receive additional federal dollars for the control trial.”

Rouff is now preparing for changes. Hannah is in college and wants to move out on her own. Her son may move out in a few years. And she hopes to do some traveling alone with her husband. 

“The benefits to my family have been just that it helped me relax and understand a few things more clearly, and to be able to handle conflicts in a calmer way than I might have without GRANDcares,” says Rouff, an advocate for the program and grandfamilies.

Rouff and her family focus on what they need to stay healthy and happy one day at a time. To them, life is slower, staying at home more, and there is more time for family. 

Hannah is now in community college, and Rouff understands that they aren’t finished parenting because parenting has no real endpoint. 

“I do feel some sense of relief that we have made it this far, and I’m excited to see what the next few years will bring,” says Rouff.