It started a few summers ago when I was working on another documentary, One Summer at Camp Winston, about a camp for kids with neurological disorders located a couple of hours north of Toronto. While I was there, Denise, the camp director, introduced me to Peter and Elaine, whose 12-year-old grandson, Larry, was a frequent visitor to the camp. Denise explained that Peter and Elaine had been raising Larry since he was a baby. Peter, Elaine, and Denise began to tell me a bit more about the idea of grandparents raising grandchildren, with the children’s parents often completely or mostly out of the picture. Reasons for this situation ranged from physical and mental disorders to drug or alcohol dependencies that made it difficult or impossible for the birth parents to care for their children.
Once I had returned home, I started to do some research, and the numbers that came up were staggering: some 20,000 in Ontario and tens of thousands more across Canada who were being cared for by their grandparents. The figures were even higher in the United States.
Camp Winston had scheduled a support weekend for grandparents that May, so I headed up to the camp with my camera. I sat in on a few of the workshops, spending some time with a group of grandchildren who shared stories of early life with their birth parents and their subsequent life with their grandparents. I also heard deeply moving stories from grandmothers and grandfathers—the pride they had as well as the difficulties they now encountered. One grandmother, Betty, told me how she had been raising her granddaughter, Asheleigh, for the past 16 years—in effect, nearly since Asheleigh was born.
As word spread at the camp that I was eager to talk to grandparents, I soon had more than a dozen people crammed into the living room of one of the camp cabins. The stories were emotional, inspiring, difficult, and heart-wrenching. These grandparents talked of financial and physical issues; the strains and pressures of raising infants, toddlers, and teenagers. At least one woman cried as she confessed that she often wondered if her granddaughter wouldn’t have been better off if she had been adopted; however, deep down, she felt she’d done the right thing. Another woman explained that she’d adopted her grandchild with her husband; he passed away a few years later, leaving her, now in her 70s, to raise this young grandchild as a single grandmother. In spite of the tears, there was also a lot of laughter, and the typical boasting that comes when a group of parents (or, in this case, grandparents) gather together to talk about their children.
I left the weekend knowing that this was a film I really wanted to make—that it was important to show what happens when grandparents step in to care for their grandchildren—in a way that goes against the stereotypical view of doting elders spoiling their young charges. Grandparents and grandchildren talked about the hardships and the things they both missed by living this new reality, but they also talked about what they had gained.