WITH her own children fully grown, grandmother Carole Smith was supposed to be enjoying her twilight years. But then she and her husband found themselves being the primary caregivers to five children under four, and had to start over again.
My husband Ray and I had a daughter who had fallen into drugs. We hadn't seen her for a while, and then she came home to us pregnant. When our granddaughter Tegan was born, things were seemingly going along fine but then my daughter got back on drugs. Tegan's father was on them too, and he was imprisoned. Our daughter became pregnant again. This time it was a boy, Daniel.
We were given full-time care of both children. Around this time, my son Gregory's wife was diagnosed with cancer.
At first, Ray and I travelled back and forth to help care for their three kids while Gregory supported his wife. She got much sicker, so we decided to let the kids live with us. I had to give up my job at the hospital because I suddenly had five kids under the age of four at home; the two youngest were just 18 months old. It was like starting all over again.
When his wife died, Gregory didn't cope. We all decided it would be best to keep the kids with us.
The hardest part has been the social isolation. You lose your friends. They have raised their kids and are off doing their own thing. But you're starting all over again… nappies, tantrums, lunch boxes, the whole lot.
The kids have grown into teenagers now, and the financial side is tough. Friends offer me their old clothes, which I absolutely love. I get out the spray and wipe to clean up the shoes, I take hems down, take things in, let things out. We cook at home. Somehow, you get by.
I was diagnosed with pulmonary lung fibrosis (I don't smoke) and I worry about what might happen to the kids as my own health gets worse. The doctors have given me three to five years to live and I'm on oxygen more than 20 hours a day.
The kids ask me where they will go if I die. And Ray, who keeps himself so fit says, "Well, if anything happens to Gran, we'll be right." I'm so lucky with Ray - we have been dating since we were teenagers. He is the absolute love of my life, the best thing since sliced bread.
A lot of people out there wouldn't care for their grandkids but, then again, a lot would. Despite it all, in our home there's a lot of laughter. Whenever I hear that sound, it reminds me how I'd do it all again if I had to.
Mirabel Foundation assists children who are in the care of extended family (kinship care); mirabelfoundation.org.au.
Advice for grandparents who are primary caregivers:
1 Reach out to friends, family and charities for help. There are many good people in the world.
2 Prioritise your partner. When we go out, Ray says, "Carole, if you get lost just hang on to the
back of my pants." We hold on to each other.
3 Learn to live with chaos. It's an absolute circus here. But it's our circus.
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