For Carole Cox, Ph.D., a professor in the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), even a safari to Uganda and Rwanda involved thinking about the elderly: she asked the guide how the older gorillas they trekked to visit were treated by the rest of the band.
That Cox would ask such a question doesn’t come as much of a surprise to those who know her, for the gerontology expert has spent much of her career engaged in efforts to empower the elderly.
Ten years ago, Cox began teaching classes to grandparents who had become the primary caregivers for their children’s children. Funded by the New York City Department of Aging, the courses are now being replicated across the country.
“It’s a major social issue,” said Cox, citing census data indicating that there are two million grandparents caring for more than six million grandchildren nationwide, a number that has quadrupled since 1990.
In New York, 143,000 grandparents are raising grandchildren (86,000 of them in the five boroughs alone).
“The grandparents are more likely to be poor, getting public assistance, and less likely to have health insurance,” Cox said. “Many of the children are abused or neglected before being taken in by the grandparents, and services for grandparents are not always there for them.”
That’s where Cox’s empowerment classes come into play. She meets twice a week with 15 to 20 grandparents as part of a class that focuses on how they can strengthen their parenting skills. As part of the course, grandparents are expected to become advocates, Cox said, traveling to Albany and New York’s City Hall to talk about their needs. The course prepares them for these activities through classes on public speaking and advocacy.
The classes help grandparents deal with the often profound changes to their lives in the wake of assuming parental responsibilities once again. “The grandparents have lost the control of their own lives,” said Cox. “There’s a great deal that they have to give up. Their freedom—their independence—is gone. They ask, ‘When is it going to be my time?’ They balance these feelings of loss, however, with the rewards of watching their grandchildren develop into responsible and loving people.”
The balancing act is not easy, Cox said, requiring patience and much perseverance.
Another issue the grandparents face, Cox said, is a subtle though palpable rebuke of their own parenting skills by peers and others, including professionals. It’s as if those around them believe that had the grandparents done a better job with their own children, they wouldn’t have to be raising their grandchildren.
For Cox, blame is misplaced. “Every one of the grandparents I’ve worked with really wants these children to succeed,” she said.
Cox’s focus on gerontology came from the strong role her own grandparents played in her life while growing up in Los Angeles. She finds that it’s a common thread for those attracted to the field.
“The gerontology classes [at Fordham]are increasing,” she said. “Most students in the Master of Social Work program want to work with families and children. But this year, we are beginning to see a change as more and more students are showing an interest in gerontology. It’s energizing.”
Besides focusing on issues involving the elderly, Cox also engages in research on what might be considered the other end of the spectrum: families who are caring for people with dementia.
“Dementia is a public health issue affecting, according to recent data, one in seven people over the age of 71 years,” she said. “Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common but not the only type of dementia. Alzheimer’s has a major impact on families, particularly on women, who are the majority of caregivers as well as the majority of care receivers.
“These families need a multitude of services from home care to counseling and respite,” she said. “ Most persons are cared for in their homes and communities, and supports that enable them to remain there while also helping the family that is providing care are urgently needed.”
But much of her time these days is spent helping the grandparents adjust to parenting their grandchildren. She recently expanded the grandparents’ parenting program to the Russian community in Brighton Beach, collaborating with a Russian-speaking social worker.
“The first class overwhelmed me,” she said. “Two or three of the grandparents started to cry. No one had talked with them before about these issues, and they were so grateful to have the opportunity to share and listen.”
Her empowerment program is also available for people who speak Spanish, and she would like to reach out to Asian-speaking grandparents who she believes face the same issues.
In the current course she is teaching, the grandparents are keeping journals about their daily experiences as a way to record their progress through the class. For Cox, it’s all part of empowering the elderly to face the challenges of their changed lives.
“My project is about empowerment, but these grandparents are already very strong,” said Cox. “The class builds on these innate strengths and abilities and love.”