The Grandparents’ Association and the effects of drink and drug addiction on families
Article from e-zine – DDN – Drink and Drugs news. May 2011.
Written by Tony Trueman
The trauma that parents can go through when their child has problems with drugs can be enormous. What is less frequently discussed, however, is the additional strain if the son or daughter is also a parent and the responsibility for looking after young children passes to the grandparents. Friends and family often don’t understand the demands and stress when people suddenly, and unexpectedly, find themselves full-time carers for their grandchildren, which is why support groups – which allow grandparents to form friendships and support networks with people in a similar situation – are vital.
Set up in 1987, national charity the Grandparents’ Association supports grandparents who have become full-time carers for their grandchildren as well as those who have lost contact with them, providing advice, information, support groups and networks. Some grandparents are unable to attend meetings because of commitments, distance or health, which is why the association also offers a telephone helpline, online and email support.
One affiliate to the association is a group started by the Families Also Matter (FAM) service, which is run by the Developing Health and Independence (DHI) charity in south Gloucestershire. FAM provides support groups, one-to-one and couples counselling, family meetings and seminars for anyone whose life is affected by someone else’s drug and alcohol use, and last July it started a group to specifically address the needs of grandparents. A grandmother experiencing difficulties with the process of applying for a residence order for her grandson to live with her had commented that there must be others with the same problem, and she was right – the service was also supporting others who were struggling with the associated emotional and practical issues.
‘After a few calls to see whether other grandparents would be interested, the first meeting took place and it was agreed that the group would meet monthly,’ says FAM’s families and carers service coordinator, Esther Harris. ‘One major concern is what to tell grandchildren when they ask about their mummy or daddy, so publications supplied by the Grandparents’ Association and Adfam have proved to be very helpful. The grandparents involved have established for themselves a very supportive network. Each of them has a real understanding of the issues involved in becoming a “parent” again later in life.’
The group is keen to understand as much as possible about addiction and treatment and most have already attended the three-day residential family programme at Broadway Lodge, for which a limited amount of funding is available. In February a solicitor specialising in residence orders and special guardianship came to talk to the group and clarify the legal processes involved, while future plans include talks from young carers and representatives from social services and treatment providers.
‘Three years ago I was granted a residence order for my granddaughter to live with me permanently,’ writes one grandmother who attends the group. ‘Her mother, my daughter, had been living an increasingly chaotic lifestyle for a number of years due to her alcohol and drug misuse. Following an incident at her home which involved the police, my granddaughter came to live with me and has been with me ever since.
Although it was very difficult for my daughter to accept that I intended to apply for residency, eventually she agreed. She has since successfully completed residential treatment and has regular contact with her daughter, including overnight stays. The thought of my granddaughter being fostered was always unacceptable and I prepared myself and my family for the inevitable changes that would result from her living with us.
‘I did not expect to be raising a young child again in my late ’50s, as well as holding down a full-time job to make ends meet, and I must admit that sometimes I get very tired,’ she continues. ‘I have limited time with my partner, who was not expecting to take on a “father” role again at a time when his own grandchildren were appearing, and we have obviously had to revise our retirement plans. The grandparents’ group gives me an opportunity to offload my feelings about the difficulties and challenges my new role gives me, and I also have the chance to offer support to other grandparents who might be having problems. However, the opportunity to be such an important part of her life and the joy of watching her grow up makes it all worthwhile.’
Another writes about her daughter’s severe alcohol dependency and the impact it has had. ‘I first contacted the Families Also Matter service about two years ago as I was finding it increasingly difficult to cope, and, although my expartner was dependent on alcohol, I realised that in fact I knew very little about the nature of addiction and dependency. Social services were involved initially and were satisfied that my plans to support my granddaughter by removing her ‘I first contacted the Families Also Matter service about two years ago as I was finding it increasingly difficult to cope… I realised that in fact I knew very little about the nature of addiction and dependency.’ from her mother would keep her safe. The unpredictability and increasing chaos of my daughter’s drinking meant that I could never be certain when I would be called out to intervene at very short notice, and my health began to suffer. I was asked to consider residency by social services some time ago but have only recently taken the necessary steps for the court application. The process is very time consuming and I have had to seek legal advice from solicitors and support from The Grandparents’ Association. The grandparents’ group I attend has been a lifeline and I now can’t imagine how I would cope without their support.’ According to Adfam chief executive, Vivienne Evans, families are very often the ones who step in to support children affected by parental drug and alcohol use. ‘Especially grandparents, who make a huge contribution but often find themselves isolated and stigmatised,’ she says. ‘It is vital that grandparents working to improve outcomes for children affected by parental substance use are properly supported in this role.
Grandparent carers want the best for their families, but their unwavering support cannot be taken for granted and they should not be seen as the easy option when it comes to caring for children in need.’
As well as finding themselves taking on an unplanned day-to-day caring role, grandparents also have to juggle many different considerations – not least an ongoing relationship with their own drug- or alcohol-using children, and the complexities of navigating the welfare system, she says. ‘Grandparents should have access to a full range of support options – including peer networks, legal advice, training and financial compensation along similar lines to foster carers – in order to recognise the great value they bring, and to ensure that they are able to maintain their caring role.’ DDN
Tony Trueman is a fundraiser for DHI. Based in Bath, DHI works in four counties in the west helping people who are socially excluded because of homelessness, emotional difficulties, learning disabilities or alcohol or drug problems.
Contact Judith Howells, Grandparents Association family support manager, on 01279 428040
For information on legal help available and Special Guardianship call NIgel Priestley on 01484 538421