Fostering a child can be both emotionally rewarding and demanding. What’s surprising is that increasingly it’s older carers who are rising to the challenge.
You’d think they’d be past school pick-ups, wiping snotty noses and dealing with adolescent hang-ups, but the fostering of children in the UK is almost entirely in the hands of older people. Some 64% of foster parents are 50-plus; another 29% between 41 and 50.
They can get tremendous satisfaction from feeling that they’re still useful to the younger generation and can transform a troubled youngster’s life. Older people are very attractive to foster agencies and local authorities, too. ‘They tend to be less anxious and allow a child to be a child,’ says Steven Stockley of advice service Fosterline.
There are about 83,000 children in care, with 69,000 of those in foster homes. Demand for places is outstripping supply, so the focus on attracting older foster parents is stronger than ever although, as Steven Stockley points out, adult offspring are staying at home longer, meaning a spare room isn’t available until later.
Here two sets of 50-plus carers talk about their experiences.
Frances Pye, 59, formerly a teacher of deaf people, has fostered 12 children since 2011. Her husband David, 62, is a part-time principal clinical scientist in Nottingham, where they live. They have four adult children and are currently fostering a two-year-old.
Frances: When financial cutbacks at work meant I didn’t feel I could do my job properly, I decided to leave and try fostering. I’d always wondered if I could. Babies were very attractive to me and David had been such a hands-on father, I knew he’d support me.
This role is 24/7 and we welcome the children completely into our hearts. We do bridging foster care, when a child needs to be removed from its parents until its future is decided. Our average placement is four to 18 months, and we take babies and young children up to about six, and get such pleasure from parenting them.
The first was seven days old. There was the shock of the responsibility of someone else’s newborn, but I embraced him as if he were my own. I took him to a contact centre five days
a week for two hours with his parents, who told me what milk he could drink, the clothes he could wear, which washing powder I should use. I felt no resentment: life has thrown things at these parents that it hasn’t directed at you.
When I came to pick him up and he put his arms out to me, it was murderous for them, but I gently pointed out that this attachment was as it should be.
David was beside himself when the baby left us, and each departure has left a hole in our hearts, but we know we can survive. You need to be resilient. It can be very difficult with children who are angry and suspicious, though.
The biggest surprise to me was that love wasn’t enough. They needed different parenting from my own. For even the tiniest baby, I wasn’t the mother it was expecting; I didn’t smell or sound right. But we completely understand that how the child presents is the result of emotional damage and they don’t choose to behave outrageously.
I fostered siblings aged six, three and two, who’d come from a background of domestic abuse. The eldest came first. His anxiety had turned him into a room-trasher. We were able to spot the signals heralding a rage and would get in early with close, loving contact. After three months, the other two arrived. The boy used the mind control he’d learned from his manipulative father. He managed to get his sister to give all her birthday presents to him.
I thought the youngest was a telly addict until I realised he just wanted to withdraw. Sadly, it ended with the siblings not being homed as a threesome.
We had a two-year-old who never cried when he hurt himself as he’d been ridiculed for it. We made a big fuss of him when he fell over and it was a wonderful day when he finally cried and ran to me.
A nine-week-old came to us from a violent home. If I walked past when he was napping, he would startle awake. I’d gently rock him back to sleep. After a couple of months, he began sleeping normally.
Two young brothers came, iron deficient, teeth rotting, one of them not sleeping and swearing at me, the other child expressing nothing. You need a thick skin when you’re in John Lewis and they’re screaming violence at you. It was a sweet victory when he dropped his guard a little and wasn’t so on the attack. I’ve frequently been in tears. These children know how to work on your emotions.
I go upstairs and cry when they leave, but we continue to see most of them. They need to be able to stitch all parts of their lives together and know we’re not abandoning them.
At our age, we bring life experience and an open mind. David is my strength and together we bring stability.
Frances and David foster via By the Bridge (bythebridge.co.uk, 0800 644 6230)
Tony Harrison, 63, and his wife Diane, 59, have fostered 50 children and taken 40 for short respite breaks since 2004. Tony is an NHS manager and Diane was a carer. They live in the Thames Valley and have three children and two grandchildren. They currently foster two siblings, aged six and eight, and another one-year-old baby.
Diane: One of my daughters says I was put on earth to look after children, but I didn’t think I was clever enough to foster.
Tony: Diane actually had all the skills necessary and, when she started doing it, it gave her such self-confidence. We want to make a small difference to a child’s life and show them alternative ways of living. We talk to each other and the family about each child we’re asked to take. The decider is if we can meet their needs and add to their life. I love the company of children and teaching them skills like bark rubbing, putting hooks on lines for fishing, tying knots, things they’ve never tried. It helps to form a bond, and creates trust and empathy.
We never thought we were too old. We know people older than us now who are fostering. It’s about fitness and the willingness to get out and do things. We’re nurturers. I do the night shifts and feeds, and Diane organises the house and daytime activities. It’s lovely to be up with the baby at 5am, making a bottle and having a cuddle and a chat.
Diane: At one point, we had two very sick babies together. One had many problems including strangulated limbs, club feet and some organs externally visible. Our hearts bled for this little baby and she did nothing but smile and laugh – beautiful! The other baby had a severe allergy and we had to avoid cross-contamination.
My daughter says I must remember I’m 60 next year. I do somersaults for the kids and run around. We took the children to the seaside, climbing sand dunes, collecting shells for arts and crafts. We went to Legoland and Chessington World of Adventures. One child couldn’t wait to go back to school as she had a summer to talk about at last. It chokes you.
Nothing fazes us now we’re older. You can’t overreact. Even if some of what we experience is horrendous, there are always good times we can look back on. Sometimes the teenagers wander off, but tea and biscuits and a chat normally does the trick and calms them down.
You have to let them regress. Often, when they come into our care they’ve never really been children. We had a girl who was 17 and she asked me to remove all the children from the playroom as she wanted to have a pretend tea party. She laid it out and sat the dolls and teddies around and played for an hour.
Tony: One child urinated in all the bedrooms, but the reason was he didn’t want any other children moving in. You have to dig deep and look past the behaviour to what’s driving it. He’d bonded more with Diane because when he was with his own mum she’d had lots of male figures coming in and out, and not being nice to him.
Whatever we encounter, it’s worth it every single time. We wish we’d started years earlier. We’re elated for them when they get a long-term home, but it’s also a bereavement for us.
We can’t see an end to fostering, although we now only take children for up to three and a half years. We still have the energy to see them through thick and thin, to pick them up and give them the love and support they need.
Diane and Tony foster via Capstone Foster Care (capstonefostercare.co.uk, 0800 012 4004)
How to become a foster carer
You can apply to a local authority or an independent foster agency, but not both.
It takes around six months to be assessed – an intrusive process that will extend to your family and closest circle. You must have a spare room.
All the child’s expenses should be met by a weekly fee: a national minimum of £127 for a baby, up to £191 for a 16-year-old. Visit gov.uk and search ‘foster carers’.
A professional fee for the carer may also be paid; agencies pay more than local authorities.