It’s hard to imagine a livelier library than the one in Beccles. Once a week, a corner of the open plan building is screened off by bookcases and strategically placed sofas and transformed into a toddlers’ playground.
But this is no ordinary playgroup. All the carers who come along are grandparents, and the group has been set up to give support to the increasing number who are taking on childcare duties. While the children in Beccles Library play, grandparents share their experiences over cups of tea.
Janet Gandy has been coming to the group for two years since it first started. She looks after her three year old granddaughter Isabella at least one day a week, to help out her own daughter who has gone back to work. Janet herself also still works part-time, so she and her daughter plan their working weeks around sharing Isabella’s childcare. Janet loves her time with Isabella, but feels society could give grandparents more support for the work they do.
"We save mums a lot of money, we save the state a lot of money and also we do a really good job with our grandchildren because it's one to one care. I definitely think grandparents deserve more recognition.”
Janet is one of a growing number of grandparents stepping in to help out. In the East of England the number of grandparents taking on childcare duties is 37 percent – higher than the national average of 32 percent. The average age of a grandparent carer in Britain is 63.
For many who come to the support group in Beccles, it’s a welcome chance to exchange advice and meet up with other carers in their own age group. Caring for a small child in your retirement years can come as something of a shock to the system. For Janet Harris who has her two year old granddaughter Eve three days a week, coming to the group has been a welcome way to re-adjust to a parenting role.
"We haven't had children - little children - in the house for 35 years and starting again it's all new - so it's nice to meet other people and see what their experiences are of small children."
The organisers of the group say its growing size reflects the increasing dependence of working parents on their own parents to pick up the slack with childcare. Karina Irons from Suffolk County Council believes that in tough economic times, the extended family is going to become increasingly important to all of us.
" I think the current situation with finances has had a big implication as well as the current affordability and availability of childcare for families."
For many of us, reliance on grandparents has become a way of life. Making it all the more important, as Janet Gandy says, that we make sure we don’t take them for granted.