Just when some grandparents believe their parenting days are behind them and they can enjoy occasionally spending time with their grandchildren, they end up permanently looking after them. Whether because the parent has died, is in prison, is abusing drugs or alcohol, has mental health problems, or has even abandoned their children, people in their fifties and sixties can end up becoming, quite unexpectedly, parents all over again.
This is the case for an estimated 100,000-150,000 grandparents who have been left to provide full-time care to their grandchildren. Despite this, their role is “completely unrecognised” by government, says Jean Stogdon, chair of Grandparents Plus, who has been lobbying on their behalf for nearly 10 years.
Although they save the economy £4bn a year, grandparents receive no statutory financial help for being kinship carers. They also face difficulties negotiating positive contact arrangements between children and their parents, says Stogdon.
And as a result of living unsettling lives, many grandchildren also have emotional and behavioural problems that grandparents contend with on their own, preferring not to go to social services for help in case they are considered the problem, are told they are doing things wrong, or worse, take their grandchildren away. According to Stogdon, many grandparents also report losing their social life as friends back off because they don’t want to be asked to babysit.
Seventy-four-year-old June Cotier’s life was turned upside down one day when she took a phone call at work. Her younger son had split up from his wife and he and his two children, aged one and two, were coming to stay. With retirement approaching and 35 years of family life behind her, she had been planning to do some travelling from her home in Aberdeen.
Over the following months her son moved from one girlfriend to the next, and the children went with him but returned to Cotier in between. Then, after another broken relationship, their father suddenly disappeared. That was 11 years ago, and the children have been with her ever since.
“When the children were three and four I went to my GP and said I couldn’t cope,” says Cotier, who was referred to a family centre where she met other grandparents in the same position. As a first step to helping them, the centre manager, Jackie Hothersall, encouraged them to follow a course in Mellow Parenting. It meant looking at their childhood experiences and what had happened to their children. “It was painful,” says Cotier, “we cried every week.”
Everyone’s story was unique but the consequences and challenges facing them, they realised, were the same. Extra numbers round the house put pressure on accommodation space and budgets, and, in particular, the grandparents were struggling to understand the lives of a new generation: computer games and playstations, and parenting rules very different from their own.
But rather than focus on what they saw as the negatives around them, they realised how much it helped being among those facing similar problems. And so in 2004, Cotier and others set up Grandparents as Parents (GaP) to help others in the city. Today GaP runs a helpline three mornings a week, and once a fortnight members meet to socialise and hear a speaker from one of the city’s advice agencies.
Up to 40 grandmothers (there are very few men, and few married women either) ring the helpline regularly, and GaP makes a point of getting to know each one and phoning to check how things are. Last year, the group won a care accolade from the Scottish Social Services Council. But the publicity that goes with it has made them worry they might become too big, says Hothersall, who still provides voluntary support.
Other problems faced by grandparents, however, may take care of that. Lack of transport prevents many from attending the group’s meetings, while some are not yet ready to share their situation (see case study), and others prefer to struggle along on their own.
With the grandchildren come repercussions including poor health or having to give up a job or a course. The biggest problem, however, is the lack of recognition from government and councils, for which GaP is fighting. It means that grandparents may have to fight for parental rights and they don’t automatically qualify for larger council accommodation – some spend years sleeping on a sofa bed as a result. And it means that they don’t always get financial help – unlike foster parents who may receive more than £300 per week in the area – because some councils give an allowance while others don’t.
“Thank goodness for tax credits,” says Cotier. “You’d be surprised how difficult it is to prise money from the children’s parents – it can take months or even years.
“I am more able to rely on myself than others, so I didn’t really want to start a group,” admits Cotier, looking back on her planned ‘retirement’. “But I am glad to be helping others.”
Case study (back)
A grandparent’s story
‘My grandchildren feel as if they have done wrong’
My daughter died having an epileptic fit three years ago, after which my son-in-law was charged with abusing his three sons. I stepped in as guardian I couldn’t watch them go into care. They are beautiful boys, aged six, nine and 13.
To start with, my son-in law sent me £90 a week, but he pocketed the child benefit and tax credit payments. I was told the £90 counted as income, and as a result lost my housing and council tax benefits. As a result I built up rent arrears of £800 and was threatened with eviction. I am registered blind and don’t have any savings to fall back on. For months I had nowhere to turn to, but eventually, with the help of my MP and the council’s welfare rights service, things have been sorted out.
My grandchildren feel they must have done something wrong, since their lives have changed dramatically. They don’t have holidays or fashionable clothing, or do things with their parents like they used to, and they have developed behavioural problems as a result. Me? I am still trying to come to terms with the loss of my daughter.”
Community Care is fighting for an increase to the carers’ allowance and its extension to the over-60s – including to grandparents acting as kinship carers. This is one of the issues that we will be campaigning for as part of our mission statement. For the full mission statement go to www.communitycare.co.uk/missionstatementresults
The Grandparents Association provides advice to grandparents, families and professionals.
●For help with contact and residence issues tel: 0845 4349585
● For issues such as residence orders and welfare benefits tel: 01279 428040.
● Support groups across the country are run by the association and Grandparents Plus – see their respective websites for details
This article appeared in the 5 July issue under the headline “Parents once again”