Kathy Hanrahan  /  AP
Carroll Harmon, 73, of Sanford, Miss., exercises at the Health Management Connection in Hattiesburg., Miss., on Feb. 21. Harmon is one of 20 grandparents in Project Grandfamilies Health Watchers, a program designed to help grandparents who care for their grandchildren get healthier.
updated 3/10/2005 4:56:38 PM ET 2005-03-10T21:56:38

Sitting in a health clinic meeting room at dinnertime, Carroll Harmon, mulls over his salad.

Seven months earlier Harmon’s diet wasn’t so green. He generally ate what he pleased and he and his wife, Mary, 71, thought they were in relatively good shape.

Then they took stress tests as part of a program designed to improve the health of grandparents who care for their grandchildren.

While most grandparents enrolled in Project Grandfamilies credit it with changing their lives, Carroll Harmon, 73, says it “saved his neck.” After failing the stress tests, Harmon found that 90 percent of his arteries were blocked and if he didn’t have quadruple bypass surgery, he could die. Doctors also discovered Mary Harmon had an arrhythmia.

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Both had surgery, lost weight and enjoy the benefits of the program they feel saved their lives.

“Something good has come out of it for all of us, I think,” Mrs. Harmon said.

'They have horrible eating habits'
The Harmons care for two grandchildren Angelina, 12, and Guitano, 15. All attend weekly meetings at a health clinic where they learn about good nutrition and fitness.

While taking on the responsibility of young children can be a hardship, the Harmons join more than 48,061 grandparents across the state and 2.3 million nationwide who care for their children’s children, according to AARP and the 2003 U.S. Census.

Sylvia Forster, who heads the Pine Belt Association for Families which coordinates several support groups, worried about the health of the grandparents she met who were caring for young children. She won a grant and launched Project Grandfamilies Health Watchers.

“We wanted to turn around their eating habits,” she said. “They have horrible eating habits. Kids eat worse than the grandparents.”

One of the worst habits, according to Forster, is non-diet soft drinks and sweetened iced tea, still a favorite in the South. She’s pushed the families toward water, diet drinks and a sugar substitute for their tea.

At the beginning of the program, 20 grandparents took a senior fitness test, which includes basic exercises like touching their toes and walking around a 50-yard course.

“Two or three of them couldn’t make it two laps around the track. Now they can walk four, five or six laps around the track. They are much more flexible,” said Dr. Linda Hall of the Health Management Connection, the health clinic where the weekly meetings take place.

Weight loss and lower cholesterol
When the program started, Dorothy Fikes said she had trouble just getting around the house.

“I could barely walk to the corner at my house,” said the 65-year-old who cares for Brickalya, her 6-year-old foster child. Now Fikes is walking six or more blocks.

Forster said that seven months ago, only one grandparent was in the normal weight range, three were overweight and 16 obese.

Since the start of the program, the grandparents as a group have lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and blood sugar and improved their flexibility.

“We learned that you have to stay fit to keep up,” said John Green.

Green and his wife, Diane, both in their late 50s, care for their grandchildren Ivy, 9, and Andrew, 5. The Greens said they are more conscious of what they eat since learning how to read nutritional labels on food.

The Grandfamilies project is set to end in August unless it receives another grant, but whatever happens, Forster hopes the families will continue their good health habits.

“It’s not about how you look, it’s how much you weigh,” she said.

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