The truth about becoming a foster carer while retired
Foster care is something not many retirees think about or consider due to misunderstandings of how the system works.
The rewarding potential of foster care for some of Australia’s most vulnerable kids and young people is endless and can easily fit into your lifestyle.
Susan Barton AM, Founder of Lighthouse Foundation, a Melbourne not-for-profit organisation, says the misconceptions about foster care needs to be cleared up.
She spoke to Over60 about the benefits and how to become a foster carer.
What sort of support is available for those wanting to foster while retired?
I’m very proud of the support Lighthouse Foundation offers to our carers, including those who want to foster while retired. Our carers should never feel alone. There’s always a helping hand nearby or a sympathetic ear ready to listen at the end of the phone.
All our carers can use our ‘Hub Home’ – a central place to access support and services for themselves and the children they look after. This ‘Hub Home’ unites foster carers in a local area and is a safe and warm place for children and families to receive therapeutic care and access trauma informed support and advice.
As an organisation we place significant importance on the role of community and community support. By creating a central space through our ‘Hub Home’, our aim is to allow carers to develop friendships, build support systems, learn from one another, and interact with those going through the same experiences.
The ‘Hub Home’ is also used for respite care. All carers need a break every now and again. A few days off, gives a foster carer the chance to recuperate and return well rested and ready to give their all to the role. In-home carers are another great support system offered by Lighthouse Foundation. This is where someone comes to your home and provides a helping hand - they can demonstrate, or explain, anything from the physical work requirements of the role, to how to go about caring for a young person, and how to respond to certain situations. And, we also have team of psychologists who are on hand for foster carers to lean on for support.
We never want our carers to feel isolated or overwhelmed. We think of Lighthouse Foundation as an extended family and our aim is for everybody to feel loved and supported.
How long is the process to become a foster carer when retired?
The process takes between six to 12 months – depending on the pace you set for yourself. As soon as you begin the process, you’ll be invited to access a number of support groups and training opportunities and receive regular contact from Lighthouse Foundation. So, while it takes time to become a qualified carer, you’ll feel included and part of the Lighthouse Foundation family almost instantly.
How does the retiree benefit from foster care?
There are so many ways to benefit from fostering, and I speak from personal experience! As a carer you’re making a significant difference to the life of a young person but you’re also serving yourself by spending time with a younger generation. Being a positive presence in a young person’s life, especially one who’s had a difficult start to life, is a really beautiful thing and greatly enhances your own life experience. It gives you a greater perspective, a renewed purpose, a sharper focus and really shows how precious life is. It can be truly energising. There are endless ways in which you feel and experience life differently once you’ve fostered a young person. Of course, it’s not always easy, but retirees have so much life experience to share with young people and can be some of the best, most effective carers.
How many different types of foster care are available?
Foster care is more varied than people believe.
Respite care is where a carer provides a child with regular and/or occasional time away from the primary carer so the primary carer can have a short period of restorative time. As a respite carer you might care for a child on the weekend, or for one week a month, or every couple of months.
Emergency care, on the other hand, may occur in the event of a crisis where a child or sibling group require urgent overnight care. In this type of care, you may have the child for a few days or even a week, but the intended goal is to move the child to a more permanent carer.
Short term care can last from a few weeks to months, with the intention of returning the child to their family of origin as quickly as possible.
Finally, long term care, which is six months or longer, is where you really commit to becoming a stable, loving and nurturing influence in a young person’s life.
It’s possible for children to switch between foster care requirements and as you go through training to become a carer, you’ll discover what level of care you’re best suited to. We sometimes encourage new carers to dip their toe in the pool of foster care by starting with shorter placements. This helps carers gain experience before moving on to more permanent care and longer placements.
Returning the young person to their family of origin is always the intended goal of foster care – this is something many people don’t realise. Sometimes this happens quickly, and other times children will be with a carer for much longer. As a carer you have agency to choose the type of care that works best for you.
How much time do you need to commit to foster care?
This varies depending on the type of foster care you decide works best for you. What’s most important is that you’re consistent and flexible in your commitment to caring for a young person.
If you choose to become a respite carer, you’ll be paired with a child who you’ll see regularly and repetitively. You’ll become a part of that child’s support network, potentially seeing them once a month over two years, for example. While there’s no set amount of time you need to set aside to foster, carers must be reliable and committed to building both rapport and a long-term relationship with the child they care for.
Will I be rejected as a carer because of my age?
I’m 75 and I’d still be considered as a carer so there really isn’t an age limit. Respite care is a great place to start as a retiree – and in some ways it’s a bit like having your grandkids for the weekend.
You might find you have a lot of energy and resilience and that the experience is really rewarding. As a retiree you might also have a significant amount of time to commit and be able to offer a young person the long- term stability and relationship they so desperately require.
Having an older respite carer is such an amazing opportunity for a young person too. For example, retirees will be able to offer time and support that other longer-term carers can’t. You might be able to guide a child through the process of looking for a job, completing a school project or mastering a hobby they love.
Can you foster a child if you’re single?
Of course! Your relationship status is part of the assessment when applying to become a carer, along with other factors like how resilient you are as a single parent, whether you’re financially stable and whether you live alone and attend work. Each child and carer will have varied individual needs, which we understand. We try and match you with a child whose requirements fit your lifestyle, and the special characteristics and life experience you have to offer.
Do you need a large home to be a foster carer?
A spare bedroom is (almost) all you need! We match you based on your individual situation. For example, if you’re really courageous and want to take on a sibling group of three or four children, of course we’d love you to have a fair bit of room. But if you’re caring for an individual young person, perhaps a teenager, who loves to spend time reading or on their computer, there’s less need for big open spaces for them to run around in.
Can you back out of foster care if it’s not the right fit?
You can always change your mind. Foster care is a really rewarding experience for the right person, so we’d never put you or the child through something if it wasn’t quite right.
We hope that by the time you’ve completed the training you’re well-resourced to make an informed decision about becoming a carer. We guide you along the way and can offer advice on what might fit best with your lifestyle.
Even when you have a child in your care, there’s an option to finish your placement. Lighthouse will always support your decision and to help find solutions to challenging situations. We hate to lose loving carers, so we’ll encourage you to consider alternatives. Downshifting from full-time care, to respite care is not uncommon and can enable you to remain in a child’s life in a new capacity
Can you foster a child on a single income or pension?
Yes! We’re not concerned about the amount of money you have but we will ask that you’re financially stable and able to meet the needs of the young person in your care. Carers do get a stipend to help support the needs of the young person too.
Can you nominate the age of the child you’d like to foster?
You can put forward your preferences, and Lighthouse Foundation will try to match you accordingly. Maintaining flexibility and an open mind are key though. For example, you may have a preference for an older child, but some children are independent and capable beyond their years, and could make for a good match.