Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, working families are enlisting grandparents to help with the kids

Gone, for now, are the days when retirees Bill and Mary Hill could do whatever they please. Since school started for their only grandchild, they're not leisurely reading the morning newspaper, dawdling over a sudoku or staying holed up in their Colorado cabin to beat the Arizona heat.

Instead, they greet 8-year-old Will at the gate of their residential community in suburban Phoenix every school day, often rolling up in their golf cart.

The 72-year-old Bill, a former college sports administrator, and 70-year-old Mary, who worked as a nurse practitioner, volunteered to keep Will five days a week and oversee distance learning after their son and daughter-in-law were required to report in person to the school where they teach.

“At first it was like, we’d love to be a part of this and get to see our grandson more, really get to know him a little better,” Mary said. “At the same time, we were going, `Oh my gosh.' We knew it would change our lives and it has. It’s much busier.”

Whether students are learning at school or at home, or are not yet school age, more grandparents have jumped into daily caregiver roles. Many are happily working without pay, for the love of family, while others have accepted offers of money from their frazzled, eternally grateful adult children.

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As the Hills have learned, it's not always easy.

“The hardest part is not just being a grandparent, where you can give out candy and eat ice cream and play games. Now there are house rules. You need to drink at least one glass of milk a day, do some extra reading, things like that,” Mary said.

Many seniors who already live in multigenerational households or are grandparent-guardians are navigating routine interactions with young ones, from family dinner to a hug at bedtime, to avoid COVID-19. Others, like the Hills, have never been physically closer to the grandkids. They hope their protective bubbles will save them all.

“The original village was grandparents, when you look back historically,” said child care advocate Florence Ann Romano, a former nanny. “But the granny nanny is coming back."

In Brooklyn, 64-year-old Mary Pupko is a retired seamstress with multiple sclerosis. She recently moved to town from Seattle to be closer to her daughter, Elisa Pupko, her son-in-law and her nearly 3-year-old granddaughter, Evelyn.

“Because of her health we are extremely cautious with our COVID precautions,” Elisa said of her mother. “We didn’t see her at all for the first 10 weeks of the lockdown, but eventually we realized we needed the child care assistance, and she was alone in her apartment, and we all missed each other.”

Elisa and her husband bought a car so they can drive her mom back and forth to help out with Evelyn while they work from home.

Mary keeps her granddaughter occupied reading stories, doing puzzles and playing games in her room from 9 a.m. to noon. They all eat lunch together, then Evelyn takes some “quiet time” (she has dropped her nap) while grandma sleeps.

There's a snack and more playtime with grandma until dinner. The shaggy-haired troll dolls Mary brought along are a hit. The family eats together once again, and one parent drives Mary home while the other puts Evelyn to bed.

“It was challenging at first. I realized it was a lot harder than when you're in your 20s and 30s,” said Mary, who raised two children alone after her MS diagnosis. “I thought, OK, how can I do this so I'm not so tired that I can't function? I said, 'I've got to have a rest time.' Then I can get up and help with the second part of the day.”

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For the Hills, an hour of quiet time for themselves, when Will entertains himself, is among their new house rules. That, Mary said, often translates to a nap for the couple.

“It's more work than I thought it was going to be,” Bill said. “At 8 o'clock in the morning, you've got to be there, ready to roll.”

For Donna Sasse in Danville, California, it's all too familiar.

Her daughter, Aimee Grove, has paid her $200 a week for years to care for now 13-year-old Shea, her only grandchild, but they isolated separately for the first three months of the pandemic. They decided to combine forces around June. Sasse has been casually helping out over the summer, running errands and driving Shea to baseball practice twice a week.

Now that Zoom school has started, Sasse will pick up more days for school help. Grandma and grandson also regularly golf together.

“Up until this year, it was every day,” said Sasse, a widow in her early 70s who works as a life coach and is trying to keep her house on a fixed income. “I miss him. I was a single mom, raising two kids on my own, but now as I'm older, wiser, calmer and have time, I'm the person I would have wanted to have been with my daughter and my son. That's a real gift.”

Renee Fry, CEO and co-founder of an online estate planning business, took a different tack.

Her mother, 73-year-old Pat Fry, is a retired eighth-grade science teacher. Renee and her 9-year-old son, Liam, left home in Quincy, Massachusetts, soon after the pandemic struck in March and moved in with her parents just outside State College, Pennsylvania, so Pat could oversee Liam's online schooling.

Renee's husband commutes back and forth for long weekends as he continues to work, taking extreme care to social distance when he's away. Her dad has Alzheimer’s and also lives in the Pennsylvania home.

“We just couldn't do it anymore, trying to teach my son and run a business," she said.

Fourth grade has yet to begin, but Liam's private school has loaded down students with summer work to catch up from the end of last spring's chaotic academic year. It's unclear whether Liam will return to the classroom when school begins.

“It's been a blessing having them here,” Pat said. “He brings joy to our lives. He really does. I've always enjoyed teaching.”

Liam sees a fundamental difference between distance learning under mom and with grandma in charge: “Mom tells me the answers. She doesn't," he said, pointing to Pat.

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The grandparents postponed a move back to Illinois, where they're from, so Pat can continue to help out with Liam.

So what about that new math?

“My mother is morally opposed to new math,” Renee joked. “I have a Harvard MBA and I don't understand it.”

Like Will in Arizona, Liam has new responsibilities at his grandparents' house. Chores include picking the tomatoes every day, making his bed and helping with the laundry.

“He learned how to vacuum,” Pat said. “He learned what a clothesline is and how to scrub a tub. He's not a fan.”