April Cookson, center, her grandchildren Izaiah Costigan, 13, David Costigan, 14, Malaki Jones, 8, and Saniyah Jones, 6, Feb. 10 in Winslow. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

WINSLOW — Almost every day, April Cookson travels from Albion to Winslow to watch her grandchildren.

She has made the trip for most of her life and watching her grandkids is nothing new to her. But she never thought she would have to become their teacher and full-time childcare provider.

It hasn’t been easy, she admits.

“It’s a lot of playing around,” Cookson said. “There are four of them and each one has their own passwords and we have to remember the passwords to log in and they’re doing it by themselves. I’m mostly there to supervise. Plus the homework and the online learning.”

According to data from the state, 7,389 grandparents are responsible for watching their grandchildren. That number is only expected to have risen recently as both time and the coronavirus pandemic left many people unemployed and with an increase in remote learning.

Jennifer Crittenden, an assistant professor of social work from the University of Maine, said the data is not always accurate because it relies on the number of families that respond to the survey. She expects that in Maine, there are more families that have been unaccounted for that rely on grandparents to help out.

“We see changing roles as something that we have to navigate,” Crittenden said. “Being a grandparent is a fun experience, but now, under COVID, there are fewer options to go out and we have this added role of being a teacher and they may have a different view on how to discipline a child, or how to handle things. There are considerations, and families have to be comfortable with new territories that they might not have had before COVID.”

Cookson takes care of grandchildren ranging in age from 6-14, and they are enrolled in the Winslow schools. Even though Winslow offers in-person learning, their mother is in the medical field and thought remote learning four days a week would be best to minimize potential coronavirus spread.

Cookson practices Reiki and was planning on opening a studio before the pandemic hit. She also was finishing writing a book about chakras, that she had to put on hold to help her family. Before, with the kids in school, she was able to do her work during the day, but now, she’s left trying to fit it into her weekend.

“I’m so tired when I get home,” she said. “The only time I have to work is on the weekends.”

Cookson — who only bought a computer to write her book — had to quickly learn the multitude of online platforms the children use and how to help them with their studies.

It made her sad to see how “overwhelmed” the children are and is worried about them falling behind in classes because of her not knowing how to help with either the technology or the lesson.

“I have pretty much been a watcher this whole time,” she said. “Watching these kids, it breaks my heart.”

Cookson is not the only grandparent who has had to be increasingly available for their grandchildren during the pandemic.

Lindsey Castensen has had a similar experience with her daughter, Elsa.

On the days that Elsa, 6, has remote learning, she has to go to her grandparents. Castensen isn’t able to be there to watch her, despite making attempts to enroll her in various childcare programs that are either not operating, or offering limited services during this time. She recognizes that she is “incredibly lucky” that her parents live down the street.

Since Elsa is too young to read fluently, Castensen’s mother has to go through the class activities with her on SeeSaw. It can be time consuming and take Elsa’s “Nana” away from her own work, since most of the time, Nana and Elsa have to work through the problems together.

“Sometimes, they didn’t understand what the directions were asking to do, so they didn’t do it,” she said of Elsa’s homework. “Or its, ‘What do you mean she just has to draw a picture?'”

Like Cookson, Castensen’s parents still work. And they have to do so while Elsa is there.

According to the state data, 61% of grandparents that help out with their grandchildren are still in the workforce.

“There are grandparents that work,” Crittenden said. “We assume they aren’t in the workforce and they are needed in it. We see them facing similar challenges as other parents; juggling childcare and homeschooling on top of learning new tech. They may be in the work force and comfortable using computers, but now, all of a sudden, they have to learn new platforms like Google Classrooms.”

Castensen said Elsa and her grandparents have formed a strong bond through the amount of time they’re spending with each other and she’s happy to be able to have that connection for her daughter. She said that she never had that connection with her own grandparents, but her husband did with his.

According to Crittenden, the multi-generational connection between grandparents and grandchildren can be beneficial.

“Anytime that we bring generations together, there are positives,” Crittenden said. “Intergeneration contact is really great for health and it can stall memory loss and older adult having time with the younger child, learning new things can keep the brain healthy and active.”

Cookson already has plans for herself when the pandemic ends. She hopes to finally open her Reiki studio and edit her book.

She also joined a writers group in Fairfield with hopes to be published at the end of the course.

“It’s been my goal for a while,” she said. “But I’m patient. My turn will come.”

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