They don't know the difference between Tweeting and texting.
But a growing number of Tucson, Ariz., grandparents now raising their grandchildren are trying to get up to speed with modern adolescence and the technology that dominates this generation.
As if the challenge of parenting for a second time isn't sufficiently daunting, the grandparents have to monitor online chats, social networks and numerous gizmos and gadgets. The digital age means the generation gap between today's kids and many of their custodial grandparents is wider than ever.
Mary Melissa Brooks says it's as if her life's script has been flipped.
"I was single . . . traveling, doing my thing," she says of life before she took over the rearing of her granddaughters seven years ago. "My life changed (as) different as night and day."
Brooks, 56, says it took more than three years to get her granddaughters -- now ages 9 and 7 -- to the point where they were stable and healthy after being separated from their mother.
Now her biggest challenge is preparing for her oldest granddaughter's puberty, and that includes getting familiar with the tech world.
"I don't do all of that because I'm not computer-literate," she says. "There was a friend that instructed me how to get pictures from mine to her computer, so they can print them out."
She is taking it all in. "They write books for computer dummies or something like that," she quips. "I can read a book and then go on a computer and try to do it." In their 70s, George and Virginia Arevalo are raising three granddaughters, including a teenager. "My 10-year-old granddaughter is the one who uses the computer a lot," George Arevalo says. "I know nothing (about computers), but I would like to." Helping grandparents get past intimidating technology is part of the conversation at Kinship and Adoption Resource & Education Center (K.A.R.E.), says Laurie Melrood, the program's director. "We explore the topics," she says. "We have computers here that are open to both youth and adults . . . to help that (older) generation feel more comfortable." She says grandparents have requested classes on cyberspace and that it's being considered if the program can secure funding. Still, Melrood says grandparents should remember that kids want and need to communicate the old-fashioned way. At a recent focus group with teens, Melrood asked group members their preferred method of getting information. "One girl said, 'From my grandmother and from my friends. Duh. Wouldn't you rather talk to a human being?' " she recalls. "I was delighted to hear that." Their ranks continue to grow A growing number of grandparents in the Old Pueblo find themselves parenting again.
More than 20,000 Pima County grandparents have a role in raising grandchildren, such as providing a roof over the parent and child's head, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half of those grandparents are raising grandchildren on their own, Melrood says. In nearly 80 percent of those cases, at least one of the child's parents is involved with drugs, Melrood says. "The tendency is to blame poverty, but it's not really the core issue; it's the accessibility to the drug world," she says. Drugs are not the only reason so many children are turned over to their grandparents' custody. Other reasons include alcoholism, incarceration and mental illness, says Maureen Milazzo, instructional specialist with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, an advocacy group. Support groups in the Tucson area for grandparents raising their grandchildren have grown from one in 2000 to 32 in 2005, according to the latest figures available. K.A.R.E. opened in 2002 and has a bilingual staff to serve its population, which includes Latinos, African-Americans, Indians and refugee families, says Melrood. An estimated 1,200 families receive K.A.R.E services every year, and 900 of those families are new clients in any given year. The challenges facing these grandparents are many and diverse.
"They were in another stage of their lives, some of them are already retired," says Thelma Morales, senior-services resource specialist at K.A.R.E. "But when they have to take care of their grandchildren, they have to change a lot of things, readjust their houses, change their schedules, and sometimes even find new friends." At her home, Brooks had a music room and library, among other features. It has all been rearranged to make room for the girls. There is also a financial strain: She had to buy highchairs and car seats, diapers and bottles. "They came with nothing," says Brooks, whose daughter was separated from her children mainly because of her drug addiction. Guilt, anger and isolation Many grandparents are reluctant to talk about their situations. Some choose to isolate themselves because they are ashamed, Melrood says. She says some believe it's their fault that their offspring are not good parents and that makes them feel even more responsibility toward their grandchildren -- as if it's a fresh chance to do a good job as parents. "They feel that in a lot of ways," Milazzo agrees. The Arevalos, whose granddaughters are 4, 10 and 17, have given up their travels to Mexico and weekly movie night.
"We were free to go out; we used to travel a lot," says George Arevalo. "When we got them, the youngest was a year-and-a-half old and my wife was in the hospital at that time, so I had to change diapers." The couple became legal guardians of their granddaughters after their son and his girlfriend were sentenced to prison for drunken driving. Arevalo is learning to deal with his anger, and he hopes his granddaughters' parents have learned their lesson. "We felt we now had a big responsibility," he says. "What were we going to do with the babies? We were not going to turn them over to CPS (Child Protective Services) custody." For Rosario Martinez, 55, who is raising her 9- and 7-year-old grandsons, her biggest obstacle was overcoming people's criticism. "(At church) they used to say that because I was now taking care of the children, I wasn't serving the church," she recalls. But Luis Morales, 68, and Yolanda Madrid, 66, who had custody of four grandchildren -- ages 20, 14, 11 and 9 -- for four years, say raising them was a learning experience and something that required them to be open and willing to talk about it. "They shouldn't be isolated," Morales says of other grandparents. "They should look for information and help. Nobody is born prepared for this." Brooks also doesn't have time to entertain guilt. "My children went to the best schools, they graduated from private schools, they grew up in church," she says. "They made their own decisions."