It is often said the best part of being a grandparent is having fun with your grandchildren without the responsibility of raising them. But that is not the case for many grandparents in New Zealand. Ruby Heyward speaks with one Oamaru woman who has become the primary caregiver for her grandchildren.

Kate* does not remember when it all started.

But she does remember the “eternity” between being approached by Oranga Tamariki and her grandchildren being “uplifted” from their parents and put in her care.

It was over a year ago when Oamaru grandparents Kate and Brian* became the primary caregivers for their grandchildren Jack* and Olivia*, whose parents had become addicted to methamphetamine.

“It was a massive life adjustment,” Kate said.

“You lose your independence.”

The couple was affected financially, going from feeding two mouths to four.

Their retirement savings were quickly spent on uniforms, school fees, after-school activities, and whatever else the children needed.

“For us, it’s totally about the kids. They were drawn into a life no-one should be in.”

Kate and Brian were within 10 years of retiring and could not imagine their situation if they were unemployed or living off a pension.

Kate and Brian wanted their grandchildren’s lives to be as normal as possible and got a lot of joy out of spending so much time with them.

“We have a lot of fun with them.”

But it was not without challenges.

“The way life was is so different to life now.”

The children had underlying issues as a result of their former home life, Kate said.

As the eldest, Olivia had taken on the role of caregiver, looking after her younger brother Jack and her parents when they were high on methamphetamine.

When they moved in with their grandparents, Olivia had to let go of that role and learn how to be a child again, Kate said.

They did not have good eating habits and were anxious while out in public.

Brian and Kate often accompanied them during after-school activities in case they became overwhelmed.

There were not a lot of avenues for help in Oamaru, even for the parents, and many people did not understand that addiction was an illness, she said.

“An addict is a sick person. It could happen to anyone.”

One of the children’s parents did ask for help quitting the drug at one point, she said.

“If [users] are looking to get out of it, it’s not an easy task.

“Once they ask for help, there is such a long wait for rehab and it’s too late.”

Occasionally while out in public, Kate and Brian were referred to as parents and their grandchildren would look to them, unsure of how to respond.

The couple would make it very clear they were caregivers, not parents.

“We are not trying to keep them away from one another.”

Jack and Olivia’s mother was a great parent before she started using methamphetamine, Kate said.

But having children was a privilege, not a right, she said.

Police and Oranga Tamariki told Kate and Brian about some of the situations their grandchildren had been through.

Once, they needed to repeatedly wake one of their parents while they were driving, because they had lost consciousness while high on methamphetamine.

To fund their drug addiction, the parents would ask Kate and Brian for money – telling them it was for groceries, school activities or uniforms – and often used Olivia and Jack as emotional ammunition.

“You can enable them for so long without realising, and we are done with that.

“You have to be able to walk away, but it doesn’t mean you don’t care … you still don’t sleep at night.”

There was an element of “mourning” as Kate and Brian came to terms with the loss of the person they once knew.

“It took a long time to feel like it isn’t our fault.”

It was easier to let go of their child once they had Jack and Olivia, because they could ensure the children’s safety.

When the children were uplifted by Oranga Tamariki, they were very loyal to their parents and did not say anything bad about them.

But now, they felt abandoned.

If Jack and Olivia’s parents wanted to be the primary caregivers again, they would have to follow a protocol through Oranga Tamariki.

It was the same if the parents wanted to visit them – Olivia and Jack had to agree to see them.

“These kids are special. They know how delicate life is.

“They want to go back, to go home, but not to the life they used to have.”

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust NZ chief executive Kate Bundle, who has been involved in the charitable trust since its inception in 1999, says methamphetamine abuse is the No1 reason why more grandparents are raising their grandchildren in New Zealand.

In 2016 the trust commissioned a survey of 1100 grandparents raising their grandchildren, which revealed 86% of situations were a result of methamphetamine use by the children’s parents.

Ms Bundle said at present, the trust had 5699 members (encompassing 8500 to 9000 caregivers), 17 of them in Waitaki.

It was not just grandparents “stepping up” to care for children whose parents were battling with drug addictions, Ms Bundle said. From older siblings to great-great-grandparents and great-aunts, many other family members were taking on the fulltime care of young children.

This was usually because the child’s parents had developed a dependency on methamphetamine and it had “robbed them of the ability to be effective parents and put the child’s needs first”.

Ms Bundle described a financial, emotional and physical toll experienced by caregiver grandparents.

“Imagine being a parent and adding on a few decades.”

More than 70% of the trust’s members had health issues, but would “walk over coals” for their grandchildren, she said.

As result of becoming primary caregivers, many grandparents lost the ability to socialise and dedicated all their time to supervising their grandchildren.

They often had the stress of dealing with multiple agencies – Oranga Tamariki, family court, schools, social workers, health services – and needed support in doing so.

The trust had local support groups throughout the country, and was looking to recruit a North Otago support group co-ordinator.

Family Works practice manager Debbie Gelling said the number of grandparents who were raising their grandchildren in Otago continued to increase.

Grandparents ended up caring for grandchildren for a variety of reasons, including formal processes by Oranga Tamariki following police or other forms of intervention as a result of an unsafe home life.

For some families, there was an internal agreement in which it is decided the best outcome for everyone would be for the grandparents to become fulltime caretakers.

The primary goal was for uplifted children to remain with family, she said.

For many grandparents, it was a significant life adjustment.

While some grandparents were still working, others were retired and had to step back into the parenting role for one or more children.

It was easier for some than others.

“Often there is a significant generation gap … parenting in the 21st century is difficult enough with all that it brings as a parent – especially with social media platforms – let alone when you are the grandparent.”

Age Concern Waitaki elder abuse response worker Sharon McGregor was concerned when grandparents felt obliged to take in family.

Yet in Ms McGregor’s experience as a response worker, only a small percentage of grandparents were raising their grandchildren because of extreme circumstances.

For many families, intergenerational living worked really well, she said.

There were a lot of situations where grandparents, their children and grandchildren all lived under the same roof due to the cost of housing or to care for an unwell grandparent.

Many grandparents could not live in their homes if their grandchildren were not there, she said.

“There is a lot to be gained on both sides, if it’s working,” she said.

“Older people have a lot to offer.

“I think we really underestimate, in our society, the importance of grandparents on children.”

Grandparents often had a very significant role in a child’s life, particularly in the case of family breakdowns.

“I don’t think that’s ever acknowledged.”

To Ms McGregor, it was about creating a symbiotic balance so grandparents were not being taken advantage of.

For some Pacific Island communities, intergenerational living situations were a normal part of life.

Oamaru Pacific Island Community Group general manager Hana Halalele said many Pasifika families shared different roles and had a “protective function” that enhanced a child’s upbringing.

Grandparents would often come to Oamaru from the Pacific Islands to help raise their grandchildren, as both parents were working, she said.

And grandparents were also cared for.

Having spent many years working as a probation officer with the Department of Corrections, Mrs Halalele could also empathise with families who had an intergenerational household due to family breakdown.

“It’s a tough space for grandparents [who] have already gone through the journey of being parents and they’re at a stage or transitional period of their life where they’d like to enjoy being a grandparent.”

It was important for community groups to reach out and provide “wraparound support” to those families and avoid making them feel ostracised or inferior for the role grandparents were taking in their grandchild’s life.

* Names have been changed to protect identities