Kiri Stejko with her parents and children.
Kiri Stejko with her parents and children.

PAW's Fiona Hitchener's parents with her sons.

With National Carers Week upon us, we want to celebrate the significant role that grandparents play in looking after the children of the Parents At Work team. On a quick poll, 90% of the team are supported by grandparents in some form for childcare needs. This might mean full day care for kids under school age, help with school drop off and pick-ups, help during school holidays providing “vacation care”, attending school events such as concerts and class reading, ferrying to and from extra-curricular activities, or help with after-hours care when we need to attend evening functions or events. At a rough guess, we estimate grandparents are contributing at least 8800 hours of childcare between us so we can meet our client commitments. If we paid a rate of $25/hour, this would be a cost saving of at least $220K per year. Imagine if we did this analysis for a company the size of Westpac or Telstra? There certainly is a lot to be grateful for on the financial front.

I recently read in this article that grandparents are the “unsung heroes of the family unit who are saving Australians $2.29 billion a year in childcare costs” with 22% of families relying on grandparents entirely for childcare and 10% including some support from grandparents in their childcare arrangements. The ABS found that in 2014, approximately 837,000 children received childcare from their grandparents. More than 64% of two parent families in Australia now have both parents working (according to ABS in 2017) - this also means there are a lot of grandparents caring for grandkids - more than in any previous generation. Newscorp are running a survey to find out how much people are “sacrificing” in their retirement years to look after grandkids.

I have wondered if this is something that grandparents consider to be a sacrifice? Maybe they decide to reduce days of work and transition into retirement earlier than planned in order to help with grandkids. Perhaps they are financially strained and find there is added pressure while looking after grandkids and their incidental costs. Perhaps they would like to be able to enjoy a lack of responsibilities at the time of their retirement but feel obligated to help as they see the pressures on modern working parents with the rising cost of living.

But let’s look at this from another angle. What benefits might there be in having grandparents more involved than ever in the lives of children? There is a lot of research that suggests the positive and fun spirit of children is good for the mental wellbeing of the elderly. A recent Australian study found that grandmothers who spent time with their grandchildren performed better on cognitive tests than grandmothers who didn’t, and better than women who didn’t have grandchildren. Both grandparents and grandchildren benefit emotionally from a positive relationship, too, with a Boston College study, conducted over a 19 year period, finding that grandparents and adult grandchildren with emotionally close ties to each other had reduced depressive symptoms.

These special relationships also help to connect families and bring back the world where we live in a community of family support. The benefits to the family as a whole are great – a study by National Seniors Australia found that most grandparents took on this role to enable their children and children-in-law – mostly mothers – to remain engaged in the labour market. What an amazing support these grandparents are to working mothers and fathers.

I wanted to hear from the grandparents themselves about their experience as carers, so we asked a sample of the team’s grandparents three questions, and here are the highlights.

What has being an involved grandparent meant to you?  

The close relationship with grandchildren that evolves from taking care of them seems a major benefit of being an involved grandparent. “The special togetherness of being part of a dynamic extended family group is a very comforting feeling,” explains one grandparent.

“It’s enabled me to have a close relationship with them,” says another. “One that I can support them in ups and downs, share fun and laughter, share stories of my past and be a part of their life story.”

It seems that this special grandparent-grandchild relationship gives fulfilment to many of our grandparents. “Everyone likes to feel useful,” they explain. “And helping with my grandchildren is one way to achieve that. It has meant we can watch them grow and change.”

Being able to help during a grandchild’s critical time of childhood, watching them mature to becoming their own unique personalities, and sharing the ups and downs as well as fun and laughter, all are an important part of being involved, our grandparents said.

What are the most challenging aspects?

Of course, being involved in such an important way in your grandchildren’s lives doesn’t come with its own challenges. “Grandparents share the joy of the children’s success [but also] the disappointment of their knocks in life,” a grandparent explains. “It means focusing on someone other than yourselves. Of course, it is fascinating trying to understand them and frustrating trying to influence them. Grandchildren are an investment and of course that demands time – something which can be preciously short the older you get.”

At Parents At Work, 90% of the team are supported by grandparents in some form for childcare needs.

Keeping children safe is a common concern for any carer or parent, and this seems to be a worry that many grandparents stress about. “The greatest challenge is ensuring a child’s safety,” one of our grandparents says. “Every grandparent worries about their wellbeing and returning them home safely without injury or problem. So much has changed since one’s own parenthood experience and relearning that skill is very challenging.”.

Part of this worry seems to stem from the stress of ensuring the grandchildren return home safely after being in a grandparent’s care. “Being responsible for little ones again, [but] in a city that isn’t child-friendly [is a challenge],” explains one of our grandparents. “The responsibility of care seems even more daunting when the children are not your own.”

And what of the generational gap? Can this a blessing and a curse when it comes to the relationship between grandchild and grandparent? There have of course been significant changes in parenting styles between one generation to the next.

“Realising and accepting that many aspects of life have changed from when I brought up my own children (their parents) is a challenge,” says one.

“So much has changed since one’s own parenthood experience and relearning that skill is very challenging,” explains another.

What are the best parts of being a grandparent?

We were so pleased to hear that all of our grandparents expressed a love for their role as carer. The benefits expressed were far-ranging, but the joy of being able to watch grandchildren grow was an shared theme. “[The best part] is seeing my grandchildren grow and change and learn,” explains one grandparent. “It is fascinating to be reminded of how quickly little ones learn about the world and interesting to hear their questioning everything around them.”

“Seeing my grandchildren grow and achieve their potential,” another agrees. “Being loved by them and appreciated and respected as an older person – and to love them unconditionally in return.”

The relationship with their own children seems to be strengthened by the grandparent-as-carer childcare situation, which is no surprise given the trust and gratitude that is a part of these arrangements. “We keep in touch with our own children, which is great,” explains a grandparent. “It is also lovely to see our own kids developing into the parental role and to be very proud of them.”

Without question, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild is a unique and special one. When grandparents are able to help in the care for their grandchildren to support working families, it’s beneficial for everyone – parents get the opportunity to thrive in their career and family life without debilitating childcare costs, grandchildren are able to learn from and enjoy their grandparents’ company, and grandparents are able to have that precious time with their ‘grandies’, boosting emotional and mental wellbeing, as the studies show.

A very big thank you to all the grandparents of the world that support their grand children in any capacity – we are grateful for all that you do and the love you give. 

By Kiri Stejko, Chief Services Officer at Parents At Work