Grandparents isolated by full time child care; Bega Playability provides respite

Kiyola Farmer waits for her morning tea at the Playability event while her grandmother Elisha Menrath gets to know other grandparents providing full time care . Photo: Alana Beitz

Kiyola Farmer waits for her morning tea at the Playability event while her grandmother Elisha Menrath gets to know other grandparents providing full time care . Photo: Alana Beitz

A growing number of grandparents are sacrificing their retirement plans to provide full time care to their grandchildren. 

The reasons behind their circumstances are varied, but the isolation of returning to full time child care is shared among them. 

Older than the other parents at playgroup, and pushed back into a lifestyle at odds with their own age group, these carers float in a social purgatory. 

Playability early intervention specialist teacher Karyn Thomas started to sense the problem through conversations with her clients.

“They are coming to me in tears because they’ve lost all their friends,” she said. 

“They are going through this challenging situation, and they have no-one to talk to about it.”

Often these grandparents are faced with a daunting decision. Take over full time care of their grandchildren, or surrender them to foster care. 

Annette Marden and Alan Bliesner have custody of their great-grandson Samuel.

Samuel has autism, which creates huge delays and disruptions for them.

On Thursday, Ms Marden and Mr Bliesner joined others grandparents for a morning tea at the Bega Country Women’s Association. 

The event was organised by Playability family support project officer Vanessa Bragg, who designed the “Golden Hearts” program during her diploma of community services at TAFE.

The program is aimed at connecting grandparents raising grandchildren with each other. 

“We’re trying to combat the isolation that overcomes these grandparents who are providing full time child care,” she said. 

“Often they think they’re the only one in this situation, so they don’t reach out.”

Ms Bragg said guilt and shame also stopped these grandparents reaching out to each other. Often they have taken care of the children because of family breakdowns including drugs or violence. 

“Mostly they’re seeking emotional support, they need to be able to speak to other people without fear of judgement,” she said.

“Here they are on the same page as each other, they can empathise and provide that mutual support.”

It’s so refreshing to be able to speak to people my age in my position, because this isn’t an issue you discuss with other mums at the school gate - Grandmother Jan Whyte

Jan Whyte has been caring for her grandchildren for 18 years, but this is the first group she has seen of its kind. 

“I have been a full time mother for over 45 years now, I’ve only just stopped changing nappies,” she said. 

“It’s so refreshing to be able to speak to people my age in my position, because this isn’t an issue you discuss with other mums at the school gate.”

Ms Whyte said that the grandparents caring for their grandchildren juggle a unique set of issues.

Most grandparents do not financially prepare for caring for their grandchildren, and are forced work beyond their retirement date, to afford medical and legal costs associated with their custody.

Their ageing bodies are exhausted from keeping up with young children, and they are often emotionally exhausted from dealing with family breakdown too.

One of the hardest things for Ms Whyte is letting go of her retirement dream. 

“My partner and I wanted to drive a truck across America, but I can’t see it happening anymore,” she said. 

Although it is not what she pictured, Ms Whyte was glad to make new friends and connections through this period of her life. 

Ms Thomas was glad to see grandparents exchanging names and phone numbers at the morning tea.

She said the group would continue to meet on a fortnightly basis, and arrange picnics and other outings with their children in the future. 

“It’s helpful for the grandparents, but it’s also really important to show the kids that they aren’t the only one not living with mum and dad, that there are other kids living with their grandparents too,” she said. 

Ms Thomas is upset by the growing number of grandparents caring for their grandchildren in the region, but was relieved to see the development of a support network they desperately needed. 

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