supporting roles
Help is at hand for grandparents who become primary carers of their grandchildren, reports Sean Mooney.

As the father of three teenagers, Kalev Pank (pictured) understands the hurdles faced by parents dealing with new technology. He also appreciates that such challenges are amplified when a child's carer is elderly and has limited experience with mobile phones, computers and the internet. In his job at Centrelink, Pank tells grandparents they needn't be afraid of technology, and that they can even look at it as a way to stay close to their grandchildren. "I've referred a few grandparents to seniors' computer courses," he says. "It helps them get involved and bond with their grandkids."

But this is not just friendly, unsolicited advice. As a grandparent advisor based in Penrith, Pank receives calls from across Sydney seeking help. His primary role is to support grandparents who have become full-time carers of their grandchildren because their own child is no longer able to care for them. This can be due to, for example, death, disability, mental illness, relationship breakdown or substance abuse. The arrangement may be formal – with care of the child managed by the State or a welfare authority, or with a family-law parenting order in place – or informal, when family members have come to a private arrangement.

Pank says grandparents often become carers "overnight in a crisis situation within the family", and that many are simply unaware there are financial and practical support options available. "People are confused, and there's lots of stress involved," he says. "We can talk them through it – we're an advisory service, a one-stop shop, a first point of contact for grandparents."

Pank himself, along with his younger sister, was cared for by his grandparents for a year when he was six while the family dealt with his mother's mental-health problems. "They took on the role of looking after us when they were both getting old, but they did it and there were no questions asked," he says. "The last thing you want to do is see your own grandchildren go into the care of strangers if you can help it."

Centrelink grandparent advisors have been operating for the past year in parts of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA with high populations of grandparent carers, such as the two Sydney locations, Caringbah and Penrith. Their job is to ensure grandparent carers are aware of their financial entitlements, assessing if they are eligible for additional payments, and investigating other non-monetary support. Grandparents caring for a child may also be eligible for assistance from the Family Assistance Office, Child Support Agency and Medicare Australia. They are often able to claim Family Tax and Child Care benefits, including the Child Care Rebate. In some cases they are eligible for payments such as the Baby Bonus, Double Orphan Pension, Maternity Immunisation Allowance, parental-leave pay and rent assistance.

However, says Pank, the service is not just about financial support. Social workers, Indigenous and multicultural advisors and a range of complementary services are also available.

Last month, Federal Human Services Minister Tanya Plibersek announced that advisors had so far provided assistance to 1200 grandparent carers. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 16,000 families nationally in which grandparents were the guardians or main carers of a child aged 0 to 17 years, however Pank fears many more may be slipping through the cracks. He estimates that he and Caringbah-based advisor Edwina Muir have assisted 400 to 600 grandparents over the past year. While Muir, a grandmother herself, covers Bankstown, Burwood, Campsie and the coastal region from Kiama to the North Shore, Pank's area is western Sydney and beyond. "Between the two of us we basically split up the greater Sydney area, but we get calls from all over NSW and even the ACT," says Pank. "My main local catchment area extends to the Blue Mountains, down to Auburn, all the way to Wollondilly, the Campbelltown area, Camden, Fairfield and Cabramatta."

Apart from phone counselling, Pank visits childcare centres, preschools, community agencies, hospitals and neighbourhood centres to inform them about the service. He has also asked colleagues and other professionals to spread the word. "I get referrals from all over the place," he says. "Through support groups, community workers, word-of-mouth from other grandparents, family forums, the Department of Human Services, pharmacists and doctors; it just goes on and on."

One of the main challenges faced by grandparent advisors, says Pank, is the reluctance of many grandparents to come forward. "Often it’s pride, a generational thing of not asking for help," he says. "Many grandparents have to hear it from other people and understand what's available before they ring up." He says this reluctance is even common among grandparents who find themselves in particularly difficult circumstances. "A lot of the grandparents I deal with are single grandmothers who are also on the disability-support pension themselves; they are struggling with their own health and ageing issues," says Pank. "They face a combination of barriers, but they just do it. It's amazing. I also speak to some grandparents who are really quite well off, but the impact of having that young grandchild is huge. Some of them have full-time work in well-paid jobs, but they are actually having to think about giving up work entirely, just at that point where they need those last few years for their retirement."

Sometimes just knowing someone is there to talk to prompts people to contact the advisors. "The grandparents really love it when they can talk to someone who is actually listening to what they've been going through," says Pank. "Calls come directly to my phone and I have my own voice on the answering service. That way grandparents don't have to go through a whole lot of people to get to me. It makes it more of a personal service."

For Further Information:
Grandparent carers can locate their nearest advisor by calling 1800 245 965, toll-free. For more information, visit www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/individuals/grandparent_advisors.htm

To download a free copy of the Centrelink brochure 'Are you a grandparent or relative caring for children?' visit www.centrelink.gov.au/internet/internet.nsf/publications/fpr019.htm


This article was first published in the November 2011 edition of Sydney's Child.

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