Denver At age 48, Shirley Sogah won custody of her two grandsons when her daughter fell on hard times.
Six years later, 10-year-old Jeremy tells of his aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player to a grandmother he calls "mom." And when his 14-year-old brother, Jeremy, needs school supplies or help with homework, he goes to his grandmother.
"I'm not a grandparent anymore, I'm a parent," said Sogah, who is 54 and single. "But there are a lot of benefits. I feel like I'm 35 again."
Sogah and her grandchildren are among a growing number of households headed by grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Social workers and census officials attribute the increase to economic and social problems and perhaps welfare reforms that have pushed families into three-generation households.
For some retirees, it means learning how to maneuver through the legal system to resolve custody issues and scrambling to raise a family on meager pensions and Social Security.
"It really is challenging for grandparents in a lot of ways. But I tell you what, I've never heard a grandparent say they wouldn't want to do it," said Margaret Hollidge of AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. "I always think of them as heroes and saints."
Hollidge, senior program coordinator at the AARP Grandparent Information Center, wound up caring for her daughter and grandchild.
"My daughter was 22 years old, looked around the world, chose the wrong man and said, 'I can't make it me and the baby,"' Hollidge said. "So the three of us lived together for five years, just until she could get her feet under her again.
"There are no good circumstances that bring a grandchild to live with a grandparent. In some way, all of these kids have lost a parent to death, to disease, to the streets, to jail just a set of circumstances that's not good."
Disabled foundry worker David Willis cares for his 10-month-old grandson, Jacob, while his wife and daughter work. He and his wife, Sharon, took on the responsibilities after their daughter became pregnant at age 18.
Today, a high chair has returned to the dining room of the Willis home in Wurtland, Ky., and an assortment of toys, including Jacob's favorite plastic lawnmower, are scattered about.
"I was worried at first, thinking how are we going to raise another baby. But now we couldn't imagine being without him," said Willis, who lost half of both feet in an industrial accident.
The 2000 Census was the first that asked respondents directly whether children were living in households run by grandparents. The question was part of a random sample delivered to an estimated one in six households nationwide, said Jerry O'Donnell, a public information officer in Colorado.
Complete data in the category will not be released until next year, he said.
Census officials calculated the number of children who lived with grandparents increased 50 percent from 2.2 million in 1970 to 3.3 million in 1990, O'Donnell said. The calculations were based on answers to questions about who was provided food and shelter by the respondents.
A 1997 Census survey showed 5.5 million children were being raised by grandparents.
In Colorado, Census figures showed 59,715 children were living in households run by a grandparent, up 73 percent from the 1990 calculation. That compares with a 31 percent increase in the state population during the same time.
Twilla Stiggers, a case work supervisor for the Denver Department of Human Services, said she first noticed an increase in grandparents serving as parents eight years ago.
"When services were needed, we got very creative," Stiggers said. "If we had grandparents who needed clothing, we contacted Wal-Mart, schools, other foundations."
While becoming a parent again lets Karen Hutchinson of Loveland swap secrets with her 16-year-old granddaughter, it also has left her looking for other 61-year-olds attending school gymnastics or track meets. Friends struggle to find common ground.
"Your finances are blown to hell in a handbasket, and you feel so alone," Hutchinson said. "And you're not alone. There are others going through the same thing. You just don't know where to find them."