AARP Oklahoma Executive Council Member Dr. John Edwards and his wife Tee have been raising their granddaughter Polly since she was four months old.

AARP Oklahoma Executive Council Member Dr. John Edwards and his wife Tee have been raising their granddaughter Polly since she was four months old.

National Grandparents Day – September 8th – is an opportunity to spotlight the significant role grandparents play in the lives of their families. And this weekend, the spotlight will be shining extra bright on a growing number of Oklahoma “Grandfamilies” – grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

Nearly nine percent of all Oklahoma children are being raised by a grandparent, said AARP Oklahoma State President Marjorie Lyons, a grandmother of three.

“Many older Oklahomans simply never expected to be raising children at this stage in their lives and that creates a whole new set of challenges,” Lyons said. “They have to learn how to stretch limited income to pay for food and school needs, adjust to a new family dynamic, navigate legal issues or they may be forced to re-enter the workforce, even though they have reached retirement age.”

In Oklahoma, more than 43,000 Oklahoma grandparents are responsible for grandchildren who live with them, according to research released by AARP and a consortium of organizations that includes the Child Welfare League and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Nationwide, there are at least 5.5 million children depending on the care of their grandparents; more than half a million of those grandparents are living below the poverty level.

AARP Oklahoma Executive Council Member Dr. John Edwards and his wife Tewanna, who live in Shawnee, have raised their granddaughter Polly, who is now 11, since she was four months old.

“One of the unexpected joys that happened was the day Polly came to live with us,” Mrs. Edwards says. “It was a little different for us to adjust to having a child again, but we were willing to take on the responsibility because we knew we loved her with all our heart. Today, we can’t imagine our life without her.”

The Edwards, who know families who are raising three or four grandchildren, say having access to programs that provide support, resources and assistance to “grandfamilies” is crucial.

“Just to know that you are not alone means a lot,” Dr. Edwards says. “It’s much different raising a child today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Lyons says AARP works to connect grandparents raising grandchildren with resources that provide support and assistance, including an online resource center that is available HERE.

AARP Home and Family Expert Amy Goyer says the needs of children can seem overwhelming, especially if you are unexpectedly thrust into the role of being their primary caregiver. She recommends focusing on the basic needs such as finding a safe place for the child to sleep, providing him or her with food, clothing and any medication he or she might need; and getting the right kind of equipment such as a stroller, car seat and crib.

In addition to providing information on programs to help grandparents navigate their way through parenting the second time around, Lyons says AARP Oklahoma advocates for grandparental rights. The association supported legislation in 2012 and 2013, which would have improved grandparental visitation rights.

And, although they had to adjust what they thought would be their “golden years” the Edwards say they wouldn’t trade the opportunity to have Polly in their lives.

“I spent most of my life in Indian Boarding Schools and never had nursery rhymes told to me when I was young, so I always figured I missed out,” Dr. Edwards says with a tear in his eye.  “But Polly has been an absolute doll and I’ll love her forever because she gave me my nursery rhymes.”

President Jimmy Carter signed a federal proclamation in 1978 declaring National Grandparents Day take place on the first Sunday following Labor Day. This year marks the 35th observance of National Grandparent’s Day.