When grandparents suddenly have to raise their grandchildren.

Five years ago Isabel was getting very excited about life.  Her son David was about to bring his three children to live in Australia and her husband Jim was about to retire.  The couple had just downsized and moved into a small flat and she was looking forward to a bit of grand-mothering and a lot of travel around the country.  At 56 she was ready to go part time at work and live an entirely new life.

Then at four in the morning the police knocked on her door.  David had died from a heart attack. His wife had died from epilepsy only nine months before so the children, now orphans, had been alone in the flat with their father for six hours before being discovered.

Shocked and in grief, Isabel and her husband Jim jumped on a plane.  They picked up their three grandchildren from foster care and brought them home to Australia. They had met David, Edward and Teagan before and often spoke to them on Skype, but the grandparents had to comfort and care for three traumatised and devastated children that they hadn’t seen for some time.

Isabel and Jim and family‘

Soon after the children had been squished into the flat Isabel realised her life was going to be more difficult than she imagined.  The children's behaviour was challenging, especially that of the three year old Teagan who hardly spoke and was often hard to calm down.  Isabel took her to a doctor who diagnosed Autism.  She then had the boys assessed and learnt all three children had undiagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and a chromosomal disorder. Conditions she hadn't even known existed and conditions that need high care and much attention.

For a year Isabel worked to get her grandchildren specialised help, to settle them into school and Kindi and to find and move into a bigger house.  The travel plans went out the window and her entire lifestyle changed.  She began to chop up her days between work at a service station (starting at 4am) and care which involved rushing back and forth at a frantic pace.  "I had a nervous breakdown.  My blood pressure got too high and one day I just had to walk out of work." Isabel had to quit her job just as life was getting more expensive.

Watch Isabel and Jim tell their story on video

Isabel's story is shocking but it's not unique.

‘Heather’ had looked after her granddaughter on and off since she was born. But five years ago, her son’s ex-partner relinquished rights to the child. The ten year old girl arrived at Heather’s house traumatised after being sexually assaulted. Her father had a drug problem and ended up in jail.

Heather’s voice cracks often in conversation. It’s clear the strain and heartache is almost unbearable. She stops herself from shedding too many tears but the strain seems massive.

She says her granddaughter is doing well but she finds it even harder to parent this time around. Her son was a drug addict who began using marijuana on the school oval at 15 but the peer pressure even stronger for this generation “ the social media brings suffering .. the texting .. at times it is overwhelming .. I have to protect her”.


Heather and Isabel do daily battle with very difficult lives. They are true heroes, or as the YMCA calls, them part of a ‘League of Extraordinary Grandparents’. They and their husbands have given up retirement, time, incomes and their lives to dedicate themselves to looking after children they imagined they’d visit and spoil but never parent.

The financial cost is massive. But the mental and emotional costs are immeasurable.

The relentless strain is wearing and bad for the health and well being of grandparents such as these. A report from the UNSW has found 62 percent of grandparent carers have found their health deteriorates.

Heather says she’d love to escape “There are so many times I want to just take off on the other side of the world and never come back. Sometimes we get a break when she stays at a sleepover with a friend with a parent I know I can trust. I went to bingo with a friend who looking after her grandchildren for the first time in a year recently. But I never really relax”.

Isabel would also like to go out. “I can’t go to movies with my friends, we can’t go out to restaurants, we can’t take the kids out when their medications are wearing off at night. Even the trip home from school we have to stop the car a lot and my granddaughter is flapping and squealing. They have been traumatised and don’t like change so it’s almost impossible to get help. There’s no rest at night. As the little one doesn’t sleep that well, her brain doesn’t switch off and she comes into us a telling us about her imaginary friends or with a book. I’m always exhausted. I sometimes just want to go to sleep you got to keep going. You just have to keep going."

Isabel and the tribe in the garden

There’s one weekend a year Isabel and Heather can stop. The YMCA runs camps for grandparents who are carers. Isabel went last year and said it was the first time in her life she fell asleep in the daytime and the first time in more than 4 years she’d been out for dinner. The camps are a specialised three-day camping experience that gives grandparent-headed families a moment of respite while the kids have their own adventures.

But the camps can’t go ahead without funds. Heather says it’s a rare moment she sees her granddaughter understood and happy and she’s desperate to go again. She’s so keen she says she’ll bring the food.

Most of us take our lives for granted and we grumble about parenting. But next time we do so perhaps we should consider the lives of Isabel and Heather, their husbands and their grandchildren. They are on the frontline of grief, loss, hardship, exhaustion and relentless child rearing. They deserve respect, recognition, support and a break.

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* Name changed due to legal reasons