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No slowing down for grandparent carers

Grandmother with grandchildren at the beach
Credit: iStock.com/Nadezhda1906

Around the country there is a band of unsung heroes helping families meet the obligations of work and family commitments. They provide unpaid taxi services, loving babysitting, drop-offs and pick-ups, or school holiday care.

Grandparents are filling a void in the busy lives of parents and in some more extreme cases taking over parenting duties entirely, at a time in their lives when they would normally be slowing down.

In its latest report on grandparents, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found 30% of children with two working parents received some form of care from their grandparents.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies in its report, Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, 2015 Report found grandparents provide childcare and important housing and financial support to families, particularly during their grandchildren’s early years and as mothers return to employment.

The need for grandparent care is highest when children are under school age and this need declines as children progress through school.

The study found that one-in-four children who were living with only one parent were also co-residing with a grandparent and that grandparent provided care. 

Each situation is very unique so for many who are taking on part-time care for their grandchildren it may be a sense of joy and excitement that they are entering a new phase where they can enjoy their role as grandparents and the time they share with their grandchildren.
Domnica Sparkes

Dealing with emotions

Domnica Sparkes from the UnitingCare run Time for Grandparents Program says grandparents faced with the prospect of caring for their grandchildren on a part-time or full-time basis may need to deal with a wide range of different emotions.

She says grandparents take on the caring role for a wide range of reasons.  Some grandparents who are scaling back their hours and preparing for retirement may provide regular care as an opportunity to develop a greater bond with their grandchildren, sharing their knowledge and family history with the future generation. 

Grandparents can also find themselves caring for their grandchildren out of necessity due to a crisis, death, mental illness, abandonment, family violence or child protection issue. These grandparents are often full-time carers of their grandchildren and not necessarily through formal child protection or Family Law Court orders. The children usually have quite complex trauma and the grandparents are now having to learn to negotiate a lot of new systems that have changed since they raised their own children more than 20 or 30 years earlier.

“Each situation is very unique so for many who are taking on part-time care for their grandchildren it may be a sense of joy and excitement that they are entering a new phase where they can enjoy their role as grandparents and the time they share with their grandchildren,” Domnica says.

“There will also be some apprehension about the role and the overwhelming amount of new information available and responsibility that comes with the information, which is also a sense that many parents feel and an opportunity to grow even closer to their children and understand the stress and often self-imposed pressure parents place on themselves because of their own expectations to live up to a perceived standard. 

“For others it may be a sense of grief and loss and fear and relief all at the same time because they are now the full-time carer for their grandchildren and they now have the burden of being ‘parents’ and the pressure of raising these children is on their shoulders. 

“They may be grieving the loss of perhaps a relationship with their children, the loss of an identity, social supports and friends, income and health.

“This may also be combined with the sense of relief that they now have the grandchildren safe in their care and they can give them the stability and love that they need.

“Grandparents often describe feeling isolated and exhausted in their role. These are normal feelings. The loss of identity and hopes is also common where they now have to refocus and learn a whole new way of parenting and the changes that come with a different generation, including technology and expectations from schools, professional services and even young parents. 

“These emotions can ride in waves and be manageable at times and completely overwhelming at others.  This is normal. 

“There will be triggers that can turn a seemingly boring task into something that becomes a reminder of what has changed and the enormity of the situation a full-time grandparent carer may find themselves in.”

Grandparents often describe feeling isolated and exhausted in their role. These are normal feelings. The loss of identity and hopes is also common where they now have to refocus and learn a whole new way of parenting and the changes that come with a different generation, including technology and expectations from schools, professional services and even young parents.
Domnica Sparkes

Time for Grandparents Program

Domnica says grandparents may be unprepared for the changes that come with becoming a grandparent carer – good and bad.

She says the Time for Grandparents Program, funded by the Queensland Government, offers fun and interesting activities for grandchildren and gives grandparents the opportunity for well-earned time out.

“If you are a part-time grandparent carer then the impacts on your life can be a joy as there is an increase in the number of services and social opportunities for grandparents to share with others and engage on a peer-peer level. 

“There are grandparent playgroups and even general mainstream playgroups now welcome and encourage grandparents to participate. 

“However, for full-time grandparents the decision to take on this role is enormous and the consequences are equally confronting.  There is a total change of lifestyle, a financial burden and social impact.

“Many grandparents on the Time for Grandparents Program have described their situation as lonely and a sense of being completely exhausted so that even when they do have a chance to socialise, they want to use that time to rest and gain some energy.

“The Time for Grandparents Program is there to support and link grandparents together as well as offer financial support in some cases and ‘grandfamily’ camps where grandparents can access one-on-one support and also relax a little.”

Open and honest communication

Domnica says that as a grandparent carer it is very important to be open and honest with the children’s parents about your role and how to enforce rules and boundaries with the children.

“Open and honest communication about expectations and role clarification is hugely important. This will make it easier for everyone,” she says.

“There has been a lot of research into child development and information that was not readily available 20 years ago, now available at our finger-tips.

“There is a lot of information sharing and exchange that can occur and even engaging grandparents to source some of the information or resources can help bring the family closer and provide the child with a fantastic support base where there is consistency. 

“Grandparents also have the advantage of years and experience so they can offer tips and insight into a child’s behaviour pattern especially if it’s a ‘mini-me’ of their child - and that happens a lot! 

“There will be a great deal of parenting that we just can’t learn from books as every child is unique and has their own strengths and personality. This is where grandparents can really be the best support. 

“The bond and openness between children and their grandparents means that if they are struggling, then there is always a safe person they can turn to for advice and support that as parents we can rely on to keep our children safe and on the right track.”
Dominca says children love and thrive on consistency when it comes to boundaries and discipline. 

“It is universally accepted that grandparents will be more lenient with their grandchildren than they were with their own children.  This can be because experience has helped them understand which battles are not worth fighting or that the bond is such that the children will be more likely to follow instructions from their grandparents so that they do not risk upsetting grandpa or grandma. 

“This does not mean that they don’t have boundaries or discipline their grandchildren; it means that they may not do so as often as the parents.  So how do we negotiate the boundaries we would like grandparents to enforce and what are we willing to relax on?  This is such an individual family dilemma that needs to be discussed in a sensitive and open manner.

“Grandparents will be the first to support your decisions especially if it means that by supporting you they get better quality time with their grandchildren and their grandchildren thrive.”

The Grandparent Adviser Line

The Mirabel Foundation is an Australian charity assisting children who have been orphaned or abandoned due to their parent’s illicit drug use, many of whom are now in the care of grandparents.

Elizabeth McCrea, Advocacy and Support worker at Mirabel says Centrelink provides Grandparent Advisers who can often help grandparents navigate the complex system of government services.

The Grandparent Adviser Line is Freecall™ 1800 245 965. The advisers can book your appointments with social workers, multicultural service officers, indigenous customer service officers, and financial information service officers, or refer you to federal, state and community services.

“The grandparents can ring them and say ‘These are my circumstances. These are the children.’ It’s helpful if the grandparent has a letter from Child Protection to say the children are in their care and a copy of the order then the money can be transferred immediately,” Elizabeth says.

“If it’s an informal arrangement then Centrelink has to contact the parents and get them to acknowledge the arrangement. But through this process it’s one person they can talk to who can deal with all the complications.

“The Grandparent Advisor can also help them with Medicare numbers as well so grandparents can also get health care cards and access Family Benefit A & B.”

Other Resources

The Time for Grandparents Program Information line is a service for grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren in any capacity, especially informal care.  Grandparents can call and remain anonymous and ask any questions from support as carers for themselves, activities for the kids or playgroups in their local area, child or family friendly venues and so on.  The Time for Grandparents program also offers grandparents who are full-time carers of their grandchildren who are NOT receiving Foster or Kinship payments through the Department of Child Safety support with respite in various forms including paying for activities outside of day care or school hours and therapeutic camps. 

 

 

Key Findings: Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, 2015 Report

  • Grandparents are a key source of flexible child care, especially when children are very young. Children of a working single parent are more likely to be in grandparent care.
  • Up until they are 5 years old, about 50% of children are in grandparent care one day a week and about a quarter are cared for two days a week. At any age, children are more often cared for by maternal, rather than, paternal grandparents.
  • While it is uncommon for grandparents to be living with their children and grandchildren (less than 7% of grandparents), co-resident grandparents were more likely when the grandchild’s primary carer was a single parent, relatively young, less well educated or from a non-English speaking background.
  • More than 95% of children had some face-to-face contact with a grandparent up until 13 years. Around 80% had monthly contact with a grandparent at 4–5 years, compared to 70% at 12–13 years.