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Support grows for seniors who raise their relatives' kids

by: JOAN CALLANDER DINGLE  - Together, Joan Callander Dingle and her grandson Chad wrote a book titled 'Addictions and Families: A Survival Guide.' It includes detail on the emotions and day-to-day problems they faced as a family in which the grandmother is parenting the grandchild. Callander Dingle gained custody of Chad when he was 4 years old.

As a grandmother, Joan Callander Dingle knows that when a grown son or daughter has an addiction to alcohol or drugs, the problem is even more complicated if he or she has kids. Often, the question becomes: How can a sober grandparent gain control over their grandchild’s chaotic life?

“My daughter fell off the edge, and I turned all my attention to my grandson,” said Callander, a West Linn resident who gained custody of her grandson Chad when he was about 4 and she was 46.

Today, her grandson is almost 22 and recently married. But the turmoil he experienced in his formative years caused Chad to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It took years of care and counseling before Chad, who was physically abused as a toddler, became emotionally stable.

“This was a very damaged child,” Callander said.

For years, his drug-addicted mother was in and out of their lives. “But Chad was too fragile to follow his mother’s up and down spiral,” Callander said. “And when he was in high school we cut all ties with her.”

Now 67, Callander Dingle and Chad, whom she adopted, have encapsulated their experiences in a book titled “Addictions and Families: A Survival Guide.”

Although many reasons explain why a grandparent might raise a grandchild, such as the death of the parent, mental illness, poverty, incarceration or military deployment, by far most cases involve alcohol or drug addictions of the parent, Callander Dingle said. Because of what she learned the hard way while raising Chad, Callander Dingle recommends that if drugs are involved, especially methamphetamines, grandparents should try to get custody of their grandchildren and, preferably, adopt them before severe trauma takes its toll on the children.

“You need to put the needs of the child first,” she said.

After gaining custody of Chad and then raising him for several years, in 1999 Callander Dingle published her first book, “Second Time Around: Help for Grandparents Who Raise their Children’s Kids.”

“At that time there were no support programs,” she recalled.

But, by the time her first book was published, programs were starting and Callander Dingle was invited to speak publicly throughout the nation. She was also hired as an outside contractor for the states of Oregon and California.

“They were having me work with the relatives who were raising other family members’ children,” she said.

Her presentations were hosted locally by Elder Relatives Raising Children, a Family Caregiver Support Program of Multnomah County’s Aging and Disability Services.

Besides encouraging interaction between elder relatives raising children, the program provides such families with advocacy through case workers, with advice on legal rights and behavioral issues, and with financial resources to pay for childcare, camps, after-school activities and school clothing.

“Sometimes grandparents might be raising three grandchildren and they need beds for them. We can get them beds,” said Loriann McNeill, coordinator of Multnomah County’s Family Caregiver Support Program.

To be eligible for the federally-funded program, which is administered county by county, elder relatives must be 55 or older and the sole adults raising the children 18 or younger.

“I am seeing very strong, devoted grandparents do whatever it takes to make the child a success in life,” McNeill said.

Although awareness and support programs are growing, according to McNeill, parenting a second time around is nothing new in society. She said Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama were raised by grandparents. So were Jack Nicholson, Carol Burnett and Bill Clinton.

“It’s been going on for a long time,” McNeill said.

Learn more

* For more information about assistance for grandparents and other elder relatives in Multnomah County raising children and for details on an upcoming May retreat, call Loriann McNeill, Family Caregiver Support Program coordinator, at 503-988-8210 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

* For residents outside of Multnomah County, call Aging and Disability Resource Connections of Oregon at 1-855-673-2372 for information on services offered in your local community.

* For more information about Joan Callander Dingle and Chad Dingle, visit her website at www.joancallander.com.