When Laurie Tapozada learned that her grandson’s Pre-K was closing indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, she almost fainted. Maybe this will be temporary, she thought. "I can get through a week," she said. "Maybe two."
Monday — three months later — is EJ’s first day back at Pre-K. Since mid-March, Tapozada, 59, has been playing mom, dad, teacher, playmate, counselor and cook — all while juggling her own health needs and maintaining a part-time job at the state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families.
"I’m still trying to cope," she said in April. Hunkered down at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, each day has been fraught with a daunting challenge: How can I best support my grandchild and myself?
In Rhode Island, more than 14,000 children lived in a household headed by grandparents between 2014 and 2018, according to Rhode Island Kids Count, the state’s leading child advocacy organization.
Nation-wide, eight million children live in households headed primarily by grandparents and 2.7 million of these grandparents serve as the primary caregiving, said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count.
Tapozada has been caring for her 5-year-old grandson, EJ, since he was 8 months old. Shortly after, Tapozada’s daughter, 19 at the time, asked her to adopt the baby. "She was not at a place where she could take care of the child," said Tapozada, a resident of Lincoln. "It was an act of love."
Routine tasks that have always been more complicated when alone with young EJ in tow are now terrifying. "I definitely have a lot of trepidation about going anywhere," said Tapozada. "Because I’m all he has."
As COVID-19 maintains its grip on many communities, older generations have been advised to be particularly vigilant about isolating. But for "grandfamilies" — families in which grandparents or other extended family members perform typical parental duties — staying away from children to reduce potential exposure is not an option.
And many of these families, Tapozada’s included, rely on school, Pre-K and day-care systems — that have been shuttered for months — to provide care for their children, and respite during the day so grandparents can go to work, perform daily chores or rest.
As the pandemic’s economic fallout ensues, all families are hurting. But the burden has fallen hard on grandparents across the United States who are primary or critical caretakers for their grandchildren; families who were already navigating difficult circumstances before the virus struck.
Tapozada is grateful to have kept her job as a project coordinator at DCYF but working presents its own challenges. During conference calls, Tapozada tried to calm EJ with promises of time on their tablet and a rotation of toys. But some days, there was just nothing to be done. He would jump on furniture and run around on the table while Tapozada responded to emails and attended online meetings. "It’s 24-7," she said. "With no break at all."
Though life remains far from normal, EJ’s return to Pre-K brings a sigh of relief for Tapozada. She’s excited for EJ to be with friends again, and she’s excited to work without interruption.
Her son and daughter in-law live on the floor below but because of their jobs — he’s an emergency room security guard at Rhode Island Hospital; she’s a grocery store worker — Tapozada is afraid to interact with them or lean on them for child-care support. She must stay healthy and alive for EJ, alone. "I need to be here at least 20 more years before my job is up," she added.
The state’s Department of Healthy Aging identified that among the greatest challenges faced by these grandparents at this time is assisting their grandchildren with distance learning, Meghan Connelly, the department’s Director of Policy and Government Affairs, wrote in an April email.
"We have shared this information with the Rhode Island Department of Education," Connelly wrote, "and encourage the grandparents to engage with educators and administrators at their grandchild’s school."
But engagement can be particularly difficult for immigrant families and families for whom English is not their first language. Technological, linguistic and cultural barriers all impede a grandparent caregiver’s ability to assist with distance learning, said Mario Bueno, executive director of Progresso Latino, a Central Falls nonprofit agency serving Rhode Island’s Latinx community.
"This is a huge source of stress," Bueno added, "because they want to support their kids — their learning and their education — but they don’t have the tools they need."
And adding to this stress is the fact that children in grandparent-headed households are often emotionally vulnerable because they came to their grandparents following loss or trauma, said Jennifer Crittenden, associate director at the University of Maine Center on Aging.
"So much of caregiver well-being is tied up with how the kids are doing," she said. "If the kids aren’t doing well, the grandparents also worry. I see the emotional support needs of these families being that much more important during COVID."
Visitation arrangement between birth parents and grandparent caregivers have also been thrown into disarray by the pandemic, especially while the stay-at-home order was in effect. "It’s hard to be satisfied with FaceTime when you are used to seeing someone face-to-face," said Tapozada. "It’s not the same as hugs and kisses and sitting on their lap."
On a good night, Dawn Anctil has six hours of sleep. But in recent months, it’s been closer to three or four. Her morning begins whenever her 4-year old granddaughter first stirs.
Then Anctil, 47, prays for the health of her family, friends, and our first responders. She makes breakfast for the other two grandchildren — one 6 years, the other 10 months — in her care. Anctil’s husband, Shawn, leaves for work amid the chaos, heading out the door at about 5:30 a.m. for his job as a supervisor at a truck manufacturing plant.
A home health-care nurse, Anctil continues to work full time amid the pandemic. For months, she and her husband had turned to close friends to babysit the grandchildren at their Chepachet home during the day while they worked.
And when night finally rolls around, Anctil lies in bed staring at the ceiling, head spinning. Money is tight. Bills are being paid – but only just. With the grandchildren home, child care, groceries, utility bills have shot up. "My life has been turned upside down," she said last month.
Her 4-year-old granddaughter was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and requires one-on-one care. This means Anctil needs to hire two sitters at any time.
And the child-care reimbursements she has received from the government covered only a sliver of her weekly child-care costs, she said.
Friday night pizza, once a special treat, has been out of reach in recent months. Her granddaughters love going on family drives through the countryside; but that too, Anctil has had to deem a luxury that her family can’t afford as they try to save on gas money. "We are doing a lot of living in our pajamas right now," she added.
Last Monday, things have started to look up again. The grandchildren returned to day care and Anctil feels like she finally has time to breathe again.
Both Anctil and Tapozada are part of a support group for grandfamilies run by The Village, a nonprofit that supports adoptive and foster families, and she says her concerns are far from unique. The organization has had an onslaught of messages from people in similar situations, just trying to stay afloat amid what has felt like a tidal wave.
And many are hesitant to seek help, Anctil added, worried that government authorities might try to remove children from their care.
"Foster families and adoptive families are a very proud group. We don’t like to ask for help. We don’t like to admit we need help," said Anctil. "A lot of families are really struggling right now and they're afraid to ask or speak up."
With her daughter and son-in-law both working from home, Sue Boeglin has gone from a reliable caregiver to a critical support. She leaves her Johnston home most mornings before 8 a.m. and drives 35 miles to care for her grandchildren, 2-year-old-twins, in Portsmouth while her daughter and son-in-law, both engineers, work from home. Relying on her support is essential; without it, Boeglin said her daughter would have likely had to pause her career.
"The twins call me Nani," added Boeglin, who is a former accountant and aged 61. "But now I really am their nanny."
Once the twins are fed and in bed, Boeglin’s 40-minute drive home is when she checks in on the other family generation looking to her for support: her 91-year-old father with late-onset Alzheimer's.
"My job is trying to keep him calm," said Boeglin of her father, who lives in a care facility in Johnston. "I’m the one that he looks to for guidance and reassurance."
Since the start of the pandemic, Boeglin has been waking up in the middle of the night, fearing for the well-being of her father. "I have constant worry," she said. "I can’t see him." But when morning rolls around Boeglin finds hope in the little things: the birds singing, the sun shining, and that soon she’ll be holding the twins.
"I have so many blessings," she said. "And that’s what keeps me strong."