Mildred and Morris Brasovankin have been married for 56 years. They raised four children in their Philadelphia home. When they finally settled into retirement, they thought their child-rearing days were over.
But trouble came after their fourth grandchild, Steven, was born in 2001. The Brasovankins' son said he couldn't care for the child, who had developmental problems, including hyperactivity. Family members said Steven's mother was a crack addict. Soon, the Brasovankins found themselves raising a child.
"I'm not saying that at times it's not a little hard. It is," Mildred said. "But we're a team. We work together, but what I can't do Morris can do."
But, the Brasovankins' case is particularly intriguing because in March a judge ruled that Steven should be with a foster family, overruling a Philadelphia Department of Human Services decision.
The judge cited the boy's rambunctious behavior in court — he was running all over the room — and said the grandparents could not physically meet his needs. Steven, now 5 years old, was removed from the Brasovankins' home and placed with foster parents.
This case is just one example of how some officials are questioning when a person is too old to parent. Morris will turn 89 this month and Mildred is almost 86.
Keenly aware of their ages, the Brasovankins said they know they will not live forever. Many of their friends died years ago. But, they plan to stick around as long as possible to raise their grandson.
Even though the Brasovankins admit they are unable to run after Steven or lift him into a park swing or shopping cart without help from strangers, the couple argue love should triumph over longevity in the fight for Steven.
There are more than 4 million children in the United States today being cared for by more than 2 million grandparents who are taking up the slack left by parents who can't take care of their kids for reasons ranging from drug addictions to prison sentences, and most recently, military deployments.
Child-care experts agreed children usually would be better off with a family member than with a foster family.
"Even in the worst, most difficult situations, a child still yearns to be with the individuals that they're connected to, that they're related to," said Kimberly Williams of New York University's Studies Center.
Elder-care advocates agree, but urge grandparents to act with their heads, not with their hearts.
"We encourage them to have the courage to say, 'No, this isn't something I can do,' and maybe they can be involved on some other level. But if a relative caregiver is willing to take it on, we think that is the best situation for the child," said Maggie Biscarr of AARP.
(You can visit the AARP Web site for more resources for parenting grandparents.)
The Brasovankins continue their custody fight for Steven, insisting he belongs with his own family, not a foster one.
"They did a rotten thing to this child," Mildred said. "This child has been through enough in his life. I hope that from us he'll have some good memories and as long as it's possible we'll take care of him."
Next month, a family court judge will hear the case and decide whether to return Steven to his grandparents or keep him in a foster home with younger, but unfamiliar, caregivers.
"Good Morning America's" parenting contributor Anne Pleshette Murphy said the Brasovankins have provided able, consistent care giving and said there's been no evidence presented that their care has been anything less than as good as it can be.
"I think taking this child out of this home is going to be more traumatic than anything he could experience being raised by this elderly couple," she said.
She said although there is not a lot of research on elderly parenting, in this case what makes a good caregiver is wanting to take care of the child.
"I'm a big believer that age is a state of mind," Murphy said. "I know 60-year-olds who are old. I know 90-year-olds who are young."
She said elderly caregivers should keep in mind their physical fitness, because taking care of kids can be exhausting for those with health issues.
Murphy said grandparents raising grandchildren should build a strong support group. She also said the couples should not dip into their savings to pay extra bills, but rather, see whether they could get assistance from the government.
"Get help from the Medicaid program to pay your grandchild's doctor's bills," she said. "You must take extra steps to protect your own health."