Nicky Pratt, 72, cares for her four granddaughters – Layla, 12, Charlie, 15, Sarah, 18, and Lily, 10. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
While most grandparents across Australia are counting down the days until they can see their grandchildren again, others are grappling with home learning, stir-crazy kids and increased costs associated with self-isolation amid coronavirus.
- Some kinship carers are not eligible for additional financial help
- Extra costs, such as iPads for home learning, must be factored in
- Home schooling and cost of groceries are top among concerns
As the sole carer for her four granddaughters, 72-year-old Perth woman Nicky Pratt is one of thousands of kinship carers across Australia.
After her husband died in February last year, Ms Pratt was diagnosed with lung cancer.
She underwent chemotherapy and now receives immunotherapy.
Her age and health make her vulnerable to becoming seriously ill if she were to contract COVID-19.
“Because my husband died last year, the youngest [grandchild] was frightened that I would catch it and die, and she was scared she would lose me as well,” she said.
“I promised her I would do my best not to get it.”
Extra payments not enough to cover costs
Ms Pratt took her children out of school before the WA Government officially asked parents to keep their kids home if they could.
Nicky Pratt, who is receiving treatment for lung cancer, is the primary carer for her four granddaughters. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
That policy advice has now changed, and children can to return to school next term.
Ms Pratt said she was still unsure whether she would be sending her grand daughters back to school for term two.
She said this would largely depend on test results due next week which would reveal whether her cancer had gone or she would need to undergo more chemotherapy.
“What concerns me is the fact that if they did have a case at the school, it is a bit like closing the gate after the horse has bolted,” she said.
While keeping her grandchildren home might have been the safest option, it was not the easiest.
After 45 years spent working as a bookkeeper, Ms Pratt is a fastidious budgeter and knows how to stretch a dollar.
But she said making ends meet had become even more challenging in recent times.
“I have had to incorporate stuff for activities to keep the children amused into my groceries,” she said.
“I have had to buy items for school, like iPads, for them to be able to learn from home.
“My grocery bill has gone much higher than I ever imagined. [Supermarkets] are not having specials anymore and this is how grandparents survive, by getting bargains.
“We are paying top dollar for everything. You have to decide which you want — is milk more important than bread?”
Stretching to make ends meet
Last month Australia’s competition watchdog moved to try to ensure shoppers can get food at a fair price after panic-buying left shelves emptied of essential items.
As an aged pensioner, Ms Pratt will receive the Federal Government’s two separate $750 coronavirus support payments.
“Every aged pensioner gets $750 supposedly to spend on themselves or to keep the economy going,” she said.
“My $750 gets shared between five of us. I have had no extra support for the children to cover all of these costs, so I just have to manage with what money I get to pay out these things.”
Individuals who receive the Parenting Payment are eligible for the Federal Government’s coronavirus supplement payment of an additional $550 per fortnight for six months, but Ms Pratt does not qualify for this boost.
Her payments for the three children under 18 — which include the means-tested Family Tax Benefit A and B and a government allowance — will remain the same.
All up these payments provide around $1,000 per week, on top of her aged pension allowance.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
That covers mortgage repayments — for a house in the country which has been on the market for years — as well as rent, insurance, medical bills and loan repayments.
Whatever is left over will be spent on food and other essentials for the girls and herself.
A Federal Government spokeswoman said pensions were generally paid at the highest rate of income support payments in the Australian social security system.
“Significantly higher than the JobSeeker base rate, because recipients are not expected to work to support themselves,” the spokeswoman stated.
“Eligible pensioners have already received, or will soon receive, the first $750 Economic Support Payment, and they will also receive the second $750 Economic Support Payment in July.”
Catch-22 for vulnerable carers
Victorian grandmother Sue Erben is the carer for her 7-year-old granddaughter Jayde, and has been since she was a baby.
Ms Erben runs a Facebook group for grandparent and kinship carers across Australia, which has more than 1,500 members.
Victorian grandmother Sue Erben runs a Facebook group for kinship and grandparent carers, who she says are “really struggling at the moment”. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
“I know a lot of kinship carers are really struggling at the moment,” she said.
Ms Erben recently surveyed 400 members of the group about how they were coping.
More than half of the respondents were aged between 50 and 70.
The reasons for having children in their care included drugs, domestic violence, mental health issues, neglect and the death of the parents.
In response to a question about the biggest challenges carers faced at the moment, the main issues were keeping the children engaged, homeschooling, isolation and the cost of groceries.
“The kids are eating more at home, but the prices are also going up in the supermarkets – there are no specials,” Ms Erben said.
“Two weeks ago, it was $10 for a cauliflower here – how can you feed the kids a decent meal?”
Ms Erben said older carers needed respite, assistance with technology and food support.
“You need a break for your own sanity,” she said.
“The other support that is needed – because we are in the demographic where technology is a little bit beyond us a lot of the time – [is] some sort of support in helping with the technology side of things, for the kids with iPads and internet and things like that.”
Ms Erben said deciding whether to send the kids back to school was a “catch-22” for some older carers.
“A lot of them realise they cannot risk the kids coming into contact with anyone who has it in case they bring it back into the home,” she said.
“They need the break, but they also need the safety.”
Trauma adds to virus stress
Long-term foster carer and academic, Stacy Blythe, said many foster carers were also struggling with issues related to COVID-19.
Many grandparent carers are struggling financially amid coronavirus due to rising grocery costs and other expenses. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
“Children who have a trauma background, like the majority of kids who are in foster care, don’t deal well with change,” Dr Blythe said.
“They really struggle with change and this can cause behavioural breakdowns and they are very difficult to manage.
“The carer also now has no respite because they can’t leave the house. So, we have children who are not dealing well with the change and carers who are trying to support those children, but with no break”
Ms Blythe said she feared coronavirus would leave the already-stressed foster care system depleted.
“I definitely think that we will see an increase in attrition of foster carers through this, because it is so demanding,” she said.
“I really want to see people put up their hand and say, ‘I will help at the other end [of the pandemic]’. Even if it is as a respite carer.
“Because on the other end, I am really worried that we are going to lose a lot [of carers].”
Security, education, stability
Despite the challenges involved with being a grandparent carer, especially during a global pandemic, Ms Pratt would not have it any other way.
Grandparent carer Nicky Pratt says she ‘would not have it any other way’, despite the pressures of providing for her four granddaughters. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
She became her granddaughters’ carer a decade ago because the girls’ parents were struggling to cope.
“They had no accommodation; they were living out of a car,” she said.
“I took them in because I am their grandmother, what else would I do?
“I wanted to give them security, I wanted to make sure the children ate well and had a good education and stability in their life.”
Her message to others in her position was to connect with kinship carers on the internet, to help with feelings of isolation; keep a strict budget; and make time for yourself.
“If I had hair, I would be tearing it out sometimes,” she laughed.
“[But] I love them dearly and I am so proud of them.”
What you need to know about coronavirus: