Carole Cox, Ph.D., works to empower grandparents who are the primary caregivers of their grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Carole Cox

Life for grandparents in the village of Mbgala, Tanzania can be wearying. Besides dealing with poverty and failing health, many have lost their adult children to AIDS, becoming the sole caretakers of the orphans left behind.

But in just over a year since Carole Cox, Ph.D., first travelled to Tanzania, life for grandmothers and grandfathers in Mbgala is already a little better.

Cox, a professor in the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), has spent more than a decade running empowerment classes for grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren. She began offering the classes in New York in 1998, and since then the initiative has taken off, helping to strengthen the parenting skills of grandparents all over the country.

“It’s proliferated in many states,” said Cox, an expert in gerontology and social policy. “The curriculum was published a few years ago, and it won a leadership award from the National Association of State Agencies on Aging. So it’s really been publicized.”

Thanks to the publicity, Cox recently had the opportunity to bring the empowerment curriculum across the world.

In 2009, a documentary called “Grandmother to Grandmother: New York to Tanzania” connected some of the grandmothers from Cox’s empowerment classes with the women of “Bibi-2-Bibi” (Swahili for “Grandma-2-Grandma”), a nonprofit organization that supports African grandparents who raising their grandchildren.

When Bibi-2-Bibi founder Jann Mitchell, of Sweden, heard about Cox’s classes, the two women teamed up to bring the program to Tanzania.

In March of 2011, Cox and Elizabeth Chesek, a GSS master’s student, traveled to Mbgala—a small, rural community near the Tanzanian capital—to meet the “bibis.” With the help of a translator, Cox and Chesek met daily with a dozen grandparents to discuss issues such as effectively communicating with children, dealing with behavioral issues, strengthening self-esteem, talking to children about sex, and helping children through grief.

“They all later talked to me about how much the communication had helped,” Cox said. “They hadn’t really understood the importance of giving children compliments, about sitting down and listening to children when they come home from school.”

The New York grandmothers and Tanzanian grandmothers have many struggles in common, Cox said. All of them, after raising their own children, have to resume parental responsibilities, and many of them worry about what will happen to the youngsters after they die.

The bibis of Mbgala, however, have significantly fewer resources to alleviate an already difficult situation.

“The biggest difference between grandparents in Tanzania and grandparents in New York is the extreme poverty in Tanzania,” Cox said. “There are grandparents living on a dollar a day. There’s no welfare, no pensions, no social security—they have little to depend up on for support.”

In addition, some of the children themselves are HIV positive.

“I did a class on how to deal with behavioral problems in children, and one of the grandmothers told me that her grandson behaves fine, except when they have no rice and he needs to eat because of his AIDS medication,” Cox said. “The grandparents in Tanzania are just trying to meet basic needs.”

After the two-week venture was over, Cox left the empowerment curriculum in the hands of Fatuma Gwao, the director of Bibi-2-Bibi, who continued meeting with the grandparents.

This July, Cox returned to Mbgala on a Faculty Development Research Grant to evaluate the classes one year later. To her delight, not only have the grandparents continued using the lessons they’ve learned in the empowerment classes, but they have also passed their new knowledge on to their neighbors.

“I was overwhelmed by it, that it has had a lasting impact,” Cox said. “These people are working so hard. They’re just so tired… If this could make their lives a little easier, make it easier for the grandmothers, make it easier for the grandchildren, then I feel like I’ve done something.”

Cox hopes to expand the empowerment program to other countries in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has left millions of children orphaned.

“We need to worry about the next generation,” she said. “And it really does take a village to raise a child—but that village needs support. So it is critically important to offer support. Because if we don’t, we lose both grandparents and grandchildren.”