Thursday 22 February 2018

'I'm 40 years older than my grandkids but still well able to care for them'- Irish pensioners criticise recent Tulsa decision

The decision by State agency Tusla to remove a child from the care of its grandparents due to the age gap has angered many older people

Happily busy: Peg O'Connor (75) minds her three grandchildren regularly
Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Happily busy: Peg O'Connor (75) minds her three grandchildren regularly Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Áilín Quinlan

A few days a week, Peg O'Connor (75) collects her three young grandchildren from school. She and her 84-year-old husband Paddy then give Amy (10), Conor (9) and Harry (7) their dinner, do their homework with them, and, if their busy parents happen to be delayed at work, will later bring them back to the children's own home nearby, and put them to bed.

"We'll go upstairs, brush the teeth, say the prayers and have a story," says Peg, who adds that she and Paddy thoroughly enjoy looking after the grandkids and often have them for sleepovers.

"They're always in great form, and even though their granddad is 84, he'll be chasing around the garden with them," she says.

Peg was among the many who expressed shock at news yesterday that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, had removed a child from the care of his grandparents - aged in their mid-60s - because they were too old.

Caring: Delores Ferris with her six year old grandson Ethan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath.
Caring: Delores Ferris with her six year old grandson Ethan. Photo: Frank Mc Grath.

Peg, from Clonakilty, Co Cork, said she couldn't understand Tusla's stance that they preferred not to place a child in a home where there was a 40-year age gap or more between the carers and the child.

"There's more than 40 years between me and my grandchildren! I'm well able to provide them with the care they need," she said. "I was listening to that story the whole morning and I was very upset to hear that someone can take grandchildren away like that when they were being looked after."

The age difference can have positive effects for both children and grandparents alike, Peg believes.

"I've been minding my grandchildren since they were small. I think the age difference is a very positive thing. You're more understanding of them because you've already raised your children - I raised four of my own."

Looking after grandchildren, she believes, is actually good for a grandparent's mental health.

"They keep you on your toes. Minding them keeps you young and you're always going places with them - you're either watching them playing out on the pitch or you're watching them performing in the school concert. They'll help you around the house too. I find my older grandchildren are very good to help."

Far from being a problem, the generation gap can actually have a very positive impact for children, according to parenting expert and child and adolescent psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan.

The wisdom of a life's experience can be transmitted to the younger generation by grandparents who also tend to be more relaxed and less likely to panic in the way younger inexperienced parents do.

Happily busy: Peg O'Connor (75) minds her three grandchildren regularly
Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Happily busy: Peg O'Connor (75) minds her three grandchildren regularly Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Furthermore, their relationship with their grandchildren is not necessarily bounded by the rules and regulations of the family household, so it's more easy-going.

"Grandparents can be seen as more relaxed by children, and this can help children overcome the stresses of daily life," he explains.

Retired office worker Dolores Ferris (66) and her husband Chris look forward to picking up their three grandchildren, aged 13, 10 and seven, a few times a week and bringing them back to the Ferris home in Cabra.

"I pick them up from school, take them home, feed them, and learn about what they're looking at on television. Basically you do what any parent would do with them. I don't find it too much," observes Dolores, who also, when needed, cares for an adored 18-year-old grandson, Shane, who is severely autistic.

"I love it," she adds. "I particularly love having Shane for a stretch of time.He's the light of my life and the others know he's my favourite. We really enjoy having them all.

"Chris is the big softie and the fun guy - I'm the one who keeps them in check. I love seeing them coming in the door."

One of the great things about grandparenting is that "you can enjoy your grandchildren without worrying about them," she points out.

"The age gap impacts on my grandchildren in a positive way because I have more life experience. You also have more time to spend with them because you're retired or nearly reaching retirement and have the time to appreciate the little things.

"I think it's great for you psychologically - they keep you young, and in tune with what's going on.

"They get benefits from it too, because we can do things with them that their parents can't do. The benefits are two-way."

Many Irish families rely heavily on grandparents to bridge the childcare gap, according to research. Last year the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing Elderly (TILDA), found that 60pc of grandparents surveyed had looked after their grandchildren in the past month. In fact, around 70pc of under-65s and half of over-65s are caring for grandkids regularly.

Another survey conducted by the parenting website tells a similar tale. It found that about 50pc of working mums lean on the generosity of grandparents for childcare.

But however willing the grandparents are to step into a caring role, the demands of looking after small children can have a negative impact on grandparents' health, according to findings from TILDA.

The study found that grandparents who provided more than 60 hours of childcare a week experienced significantly more depressive symptoms, although the effect was moderated by how much they participated in social and leisure activities.

On the downside, acknowledges Dr Ryan, who is head of psychology at the University of Limerick, the demands of grandparenting today can be heavier than in generations past.

Modern children often have a busy programme of scheduled sports and hobby activities to which they may need to be brought, and some grandparents may struggle to be able to carry out these duties regularly and consistently.

Furthermore, he points out, if grandparents are expected to care for a child in a context where the grandparent is unwell, or where one grandparent is caring for his or her spouse, their physical or psychological capacity to care for a grandchild can be compromised.

In other situations, grandparents who have taken on a custodial role of their grandchild and are expected to engage with statutory bodies and the often onerous supervision procedures required for those responsible for the child, may find the rules and regulations regarding reviews, meetings and assessments, both bureaucratic and burdensome.

However, for many grandparents, caring for grandchildren is a genuine joy. Retired schoolteacher Sheila Cashman (72) looks after her grandsons Will (11) and Oran (10) about once a week, though if they happen become ill during school hours, she'll collect them from school and care for them in her own home while their parents are at work.

"I do their homework with them and I'm taking them on holidays with me for a week at the end of June.

"It's great, because otherwise I wouldn't be keeping in touch. I think this 40-year rule is terrible. I'm well fit and able to look after my grandchildren and I'm some 60 years older than them. There's nothing they want me to do with them that I cannot do.

"They'll go out into the garden with me and help me with a few little jobs; we have great fun - every Thursday we go to a local shop and they get these filled rolls as a treat.

"During the school holidays I take them for a few days every week because both parents are working.

"You'd get tired from going around with them but at the same time they really stimulate me because I'm involved in a lot more activities as a result of being around them.

"I get to see the world through their eyes, and it's interesting and I'm energised by it. Their ideas are different to mine."

Irish Independent

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