For a great many people becoming a grandparent is one of life’s pleasures. The ties that bind children to their parent’s parents are supportive ones and the relationships they share are often warm and playful in a way that is different from a parent’s.

Imagine, though, if circumstances force you to become the principal carer of your grandchild or grandchildren. Just when you think you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your life, you are faced with potty training, the school run or the task of steering youngsters through the roller-coaster of teenage.

For those facing this task, through bereavement, estrangement, injury or addiction, there is precious little support either financial or emotional.

One such grandmother is former probation officer Mel Nichols. She’s a member of More Than Grandparents in Sunderland, formed about eight years ago by two kinship carers.  “Lots of research was done with regards to finding out how many kinship carers were in Sunderland and campaigning for change which was instrumental in influencing the local authority to create and implement a friends and family policy,” says Mel.

“I became chair of the group about two years ago and what I was being repeatedly told by carers was they needed support. The campaigning for change was important but the support even more so.

“So I set about creating a group where carers come along and offer each other mutual support and also get one to one intensive support from me. That includes advocating on their behalf with the local authority and other professionals.

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“I also developed the constitution and have since been successful in a funding application to Communities Can which will fund the support of a consultant to help us move forward and hopefully become a registered charity in the not too distant future.”

Mel explains her own situation, “I became a kinship carers six years ago when my grandson was placed with me at the age of five months old.  His sister followed eighteen months later and was placed with me from birth and then baby twins some 14 months later.

“So I found myself with a three year old, a fourteen month old and new born twins.  There was no support emotionally or otherwise.  Nothing could have prepared me for what my family went through. You are just expected to get on with it.

“Being a kinship carer is emotional and stressful.  We aren’t as young as when we raised our own children and so it’s exhausting. The children we care for often have complex needs due to early childhood trauma which often manifests as difficult behaviour.  Add to the mix the expectation for us to supervise contact with often disgruntled and sometimes volatile or violent birth parents and is it any wonder we all feel overwhelmed at times.”

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Mel and a number of her group visited Minsteracres recently for a weekend away together as part of our outreach programme. “They’re an invisible group of carers,” says outreach coordinator Liz Holmes. “They feel they’re left to just get on with it and cope.

“This was the first time they had been away as a group and they talked about how lovely it was to have that time.”

The outreach team provided childcare so that the adults could have a bit of time for themselves. “One great grandmother who came with her daughter and her daughter’s grandson joked, ‘This must be what it’s like to have a nanny!’

“The children gelled as a group, which made it easier for the adults to kick back and enjoy the massage and pamper sessions we provided,” says Liz.

She and her team include experienced social workers, a mental health nurse and therapists and they work with lots of people forced through whatever circumstances to live on the margins. Although they witness the difficulties which many of their visitors experience, they are constantly amazed by the spirit that keeps them going. “I’m inspired by their sacrifice and humour. They bring humanity,” says Liz. “They’re unsung heroes, all of them.

“Even though we see them arrive worn out, in need of a break, when they come together there’s an energy, affection and support for one another. To be honest, we get as much back from them as we give,” she says.

As for the visitors, Mel says, “Minsteracres offers the carers respite from their daily lives so they can recharge ready for the next battle!”