Grandparents – Australia’s number one childcare provider

The experience of being a grandparent is supposed to be glorious and golden. It evokes ideas of relaxing from the parenting role, being the mischievous ally, the grandchild's foil, who delights, spoils and treats them - and then promptly hands them back.

Well that was the idea at least. And yet just when grandparents thought they'd be kicking back on a cruise ship somewhere down the Danube, it's more likely they'll be in a change room with a kicking toddler, knee-deep in you-know-what.

That's not to say there is no joy in this. Many grandparents derive great pleasure and personal benefit from bonding with their grandchildren and helping their children out. However, there is nothing casual about the level of care Australian grandparents provide today.

Grandparents have inadvertently become a central component of a fragmented childcare system. 'Grandparent care' - and yes it even has a formal name - is now the most popular form of childcare in Australia, far outstripping other childcare services, including short and long-daycare.

Rather than just a stop gap they've become an unofficial service. The next-best option to parental care for the affordability and flexibility they offer; providing countless hours of love, education and care, and yet with little support or financial assistance.

And while there is a lot to applaud about such selfless altruism, the cost of this care to the wellbeing of grandparents themselves may be substantial.

The reality for grandparents is that many, while committed to looking after their precious grandchildren, are working around their care arrangements and taking on additional costs and sacrifices.

According to a National Seniors Australia report, in 2014 a whopping 97% of grandparent care in Australia was unpaid. Grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, were shown to alter or reduce their hours of work to fit in with a care schedule, often at a financial or career-related loss. Grandparents were also shown to provide a considerable amount of care in non-standard hours, such as nights, weekends and over holidays, often cutting into their own social calendars and affecting their ability to be flexible or plan ahead.

Regular care of grandchildren was also found to have an impact on retirement decisions and planning. Committing to ongoing care in many instances changed a grandparent's expected time of retirement, often forcing a retirement sooner to fit in with care obligations. It also influenced the types of activities grandparents took up upon retirement, with many opting to curb travel plans, a move or regular social activities that impacted their care schedule.

Government and industry, while aware of this, have not caught up to the realities of what grandparents now face and the long-term impact that ongoing care obligations can have on their lifestyle and financial well-being.

While there are some government subsidies available for grandparent carers, the onerous process of registering and low level of subsidy offered has meant that many grandparents either aren't eligible or just don't apply. And offering better financial incentives is only a piece of the puzzle.

What has become obvious is that while grandparents have stepped up to the plate, there is also a growing need for social policy to respond, from childcare subsidies to flexible workplace policies and better retirement incomes to better compensate grandparents for the overwhelming care responsibilities they now take on to the wider benefit of society.

This will give grandparents the ability to make real choices based on their work participation, income and retirement choices. It will also provide the recognition that they truly deserve and allow them to enjoy the hours of care with their grandchildren without a sense of financial loss or burden.

And when lounge rooms turns into playrooms and the lyrics from Disney's Frozen keep grandparents up at night, surely this is a sign that just that 'little bit of babysitting' has morphed into something far more demanding and has reached its crucial tipping point.