It's not that Jo Power doesn't want her grandson Joseph living with her. She loves him dearly and is proud and happy about their nine years together.

It's rather that sometimes the 59-year-old Power wishes she didn't have to spend quite so much time in elementary schools, or learning the intricacies of Pokemon, or worrying about whether she will still be around when it's time to send him off to college.

Power, a former IBM accountant and a resident of Rockville, has cared for her grandson since he was born, but became his full-time legal guardian in 1993 when his mother--her daughter--was paralyzed in an auto accident. In taking on that role, she has joined one of the fastest growing demographic groups in America--grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

"This is not what I imagined years ago I would be doing as a grandmother," said Power, an easy-smiling woman who raised three children of her own and is now active in rescuing mistreated poodles. "Grandparents are supposed to take grandkids out, spoil them a bit, buy some treats and send them home to Mom and Dad."

Instead, she does it all--from getting her grandson ready for school in the morning to tucking him in at night. "He's my child now, and I would hate to live without him," she said. "But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't harder this second time around."

Grandparents have helped raise grandchildren throughout history, and many have done it full-time. Among the Americans who spent some or all of their childhood being raised by grandparents are President Clinton, Tipper Gore, performer Oprah Winfrey and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

But in recent years, several powerful social forces have joined to swell the grandparent-as-parent population as never before, and to make it generally more problematic.

On the positive side, grandparents are living much longer, and 80 percent of children today can expect to have at least two grandparents alive at age 10. But on the negative, divorce, drugs, AIDS, accidents and incarceration have increasingly taken parents out of the picture in the past two decades.

As a result, the number of families headed by two grandparents caring for children under 18 with no parents present grew by 31 percent between 1990 and 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Families where single grandmothers care for grandchildren without any parents present grew by 27 percent. During that same period, the number of traditional families with parents and children grew by only 13 percent.

In all, 6 percent of American children lived in households headed by a grandparent in 1997, the Census reports, compared with 3 percent of families in 1970. Some of those grandparent-headed families, especially those that are foreign-born, also had parents present to care for the children. But 29 percent of the children living with grandparents had only a grandmother and one parent (usually the mother) at home.

The nature and complexity of this evolving family reorganization became more visible to Americans earlier this month when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a Washington state case involving the visitation rights of grandparents. That case has sparked controversy, in large part because the state law under review provides very liberal visitation rights for all relatives. But the social backdrop to the case is well accepted and understood: The American family is changing and many grandparents have to play enhanced roles in the lives of their grandchildren as a result.

The phenomenon has not only taken sometimes reluctant grandparents by surprise. Advocates for these caregiver grandparents say that adoption and guardianship laws, as well as social service and public school regulations, have lagged behind the new social realities. As a result, it is often both difficult and expensive for a grandparent to gain legal custody or guardianship of a grandchild in need. And without that legal standing, it becomes a struggle to win health benefits, to apply for all forms of aid, and even to register a child for school.

"Lots and lots of grandparents contact us and want to know what their rights are regarding their grandkids," said Katie Smith Sloan, director of the Applied Gerontology Group for AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. "Some of that is about issues like visitation, but more is about how society is really not set up to deal with the grandparent-as-caregiver situation."

Gerontologist Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center in New York, was himself raised by grandparents, and knows the possibilities and pitfalls.

"Ideally, a child should be brought up by his or her parents, with grandparents present to help out," Butler said. "But if many grandparents are going to be caring for children themselves, then society has to loosen up as much as possible to assist, because this is an inherently difficult situation."

In an effort to help grandparents cope, hundreds of support groups have sprung up around the country, including dozens in the Washington area. Some are sponsored by public agencies, some by private groups and some by the grandparents themselves. They generally provide information and speakers expert in topics like guardianship and medical benefits. But perhaps most important of all, they bring together other grandparents who find themselves in the same, often leaky boat.

Jo Power belongs to a Rockville group called Grandparents to the Rescue and says the twice-monthly meetings make her feel less alone. They also allow her to talk about her grandson with people her age--a relief, she said, from the rewarding but sometimes difficult job of relating to the considerably younger parents of her grandson's peers.

The group also helps her better handle the stereotype, which she resents, of caregiving grandparents as an inner-city phenomenon. "This is something happening to lots of middle class white families," she said. "Most people don't understand that."

Census statistics show that while black grandparents are more than twice as likely to be caring for their grandchildren as whites, the total number of white grandparent caregivers is considerably higher.

One especially active local grandparent support group is Grandparents as Parents in Columbia. According to the group's program coordinator, Ellen Willinghan, 60 grandparents regularly attend the meetings, including one grandmother of 85. Almost all of the grandparents are caring for their grandchildren because their own children are drug users. One grandmother learned she had a grandchild only when fellow addicts living with her daughter in a Baltimore crack house called to ask her to pick the child up.

"Most of these grandparents brought up their own kids active in church, in Boy Scouts, in PTA, and they have been just stunned to see them later become addicted to drugs," Willinghan said.

"So they often come into our group feeling confusion and some shame about their situation," she said. "But when they see other grandparents like themselves facing the same awful situations, when they hear the same stories about what drugs did to otherwise normal kids, it's an enormous relief."

One grandfather in the group, who asked that his name be withheld, is taking care of a 9-year-old grandson. He and his wife took in the child after their daughter became involved with drugs, something they never imagined could happen. He said he was shocked to hear so many similar stories from fellow group members, and was saddened by the dire conditions many of the grandparents were experiencing.

"It's very sad that society is dealing with us the way it is," he said. "These grandparents are doing something out of their hearts, and I have to say that society is not always helping. Social services, the law--they often don't support grandparents in these situations."

While many children living with grandparents are doing just fine, the Census Bureau reports that 27 percent are living in poverty, compared with 19 percent in homes maintained by parents. Almost two-thirds of children in grandmother-only homes are living in poverty. The most disadvantaged grandparent-headed families are the ones growing most quickly, the Census found.

"These continued increases are particularly troublesome," the Census report concluded, "because the development of programs and policies to address the special needs of grandparents and their grandchildren has not kept pace."

Resources

For information about local groups that support caregiving grandparents, call the AARP Grandparent Information Center at 202-434-2296 or e-mail to gic@aarp.org.

Other resources for grandparents include:

* Grandparents As Parents of Howard County provides support group information, assistance, networking opportunities and informational programming for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren because the parents have problems with addictions. Call 410-719-8871 or e-mail Willinghan@msn.com.

* Fathers United for Equal Rights & Women's Coalition are self-help support groups that help fathers, spouses, second wives and grandparents in coping with: threatened or actual separation or divorce; loss of custody or parental access/visitation rights; termination of parental rights; threat of parental kidnapping; domestic relations violence; or accusation of violence. For information, call 703-451-8580.

* The Parenting Education Center, part of Fairfax County Public Schools, offers classes that focus on the impact of divorce on children, co-parenting issues and strategies to strengthen parenting skills. "Co-parenting: Two Parents, Two Homes" is a four-hour class taught by a mediator twice a month for parents or grandparents to learn to nurture the child they are raising despite problems with another parental figure. Fee $35. For information, call 703-846-8664.

Grandparents Deliver Food, Fun and More

Grandparents are living much longer, and 80 percent of children today can expect to have at least two grandparents alive at age 10. For many children, that means frequent contact with their grandparents. A recent study of 823 grandparents -- most of whom do not live with their grandchildren -- shows that these contacts over the course of a month involve a variety of activities.

72% Ate in

65% Ate out

55% Watched TV comedy

54% Stayed over

43% Shopped for clothes

41% Exercised/played sports

41% Watched educational TV

39% Attended religious service

38% Watched video

29% Did gardening

24% Used a computer

21% Made home repairs

20% Attended sports event

17% Took a trip

11% Went to amusement park

10% Visited library

10% Went out to movie

SOURCE: AARP, ICR SURVEY RESEARCH GROUP

HEALTH TALK ONLINE

Got a question about grandparenting? Join us today at 2 p.m. for a discussion of this topic on The Washington Post's Internet edition at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Send in your comments and questions.

CAPTION: "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't harder this second time around," says Jo Power about raising a grandson.

CAPTION: Jo Power accompanies her grandson Joseph and dog Lexie on a walk through their Rockville neighborhood.