The surrogate grandparents helping Australia's migrant families


More than a third of Australians have overseas-born parents, meaning many grandparent-grandchild relationships are stretched across the miles.

Jessica Fryett-Tigges and her husband have three children under five.

She’s from England and he’s from Brazil, but now they live on NSW’s Central Coast. Neither has extended family in Australia. 

Jessica says she was concerned three-year-old daughter Lais and identical toddler twins Chloe and Saskia were missing out on the influence of an older person in their lives. 

“For my husband's mother, she's never seen them at all, because she has had to look after her mother in Brazil and she hasn't been able to travel,” she told SBS News. 

“For my parents, they come out annually if they can. And I have been back to the UK once to see my parents with Lais, but as soon as the twins came it's been harder.”

The couple are among the 35 per cent of Australians, according to the last census, who have both parents born overseas.

It prompted the family to join a not-for-profit group which links families with volunteer surrogate grandmas and granddads - in their case a woman they have come to know as ‘Nan Carey’.

Nan Carey with Lais, Saskia and Chloe
Nan Carey with Lais, Saskia and Chloe
SBS News

Special relationship

The retired, former librarian is an active member of the community who enjoys sharing her love of music and other hobbies with others.

But moving to a coastal town with a large retiree community and away from her own immediate family made her miss the company of younger people.

“You just feel like you're moving around in one circle of your age group,” Nan Carey told SBS News.

Volunteering helped fill that gap. 

“It’s lovely to get that variety again and feel like you’re part of life … I love all the things that young people like to do.”

Nan Carey
Retiree Nan Carey says it's easy for older people to become disconnected from younger generations.
SBS News

The family meet up with Nan Carey most weeks for a spot of gardening, reading, playing the piano or having a picnic. 

Jessica said it’s a unique relationship. 

"[It’s about] fostering those relationships with an older person and seeing those ethics and values come through from that generation which I think is missed in my peer group."

Find a Grandparent founder Cate Kloos set up the service six years ago, not only for migrants in Australia, but anyone who lives without grandchildren or grandparents.

Distance and estrangement are some of the reasons families join, while many older Australians yearn for contact with younger generations.  

Her initial motivation was to find a surrogate grandparent for her own children after she migrated to Australia from Germany.

“I think I pretty much set it up over desperation,” she said. “We don't have any wider family around, so no grandparents for my children. I thought that was really sad.”

Jessica Fryett-Tigges on a weekly visit with Nana Carey
Jessica Fryett-Tigges on a weekly visit with Nan Carey.

She eventually found a suitable woman in her local area and they maintain weekly contact.

“I was very close to my grandma when I was growing up and I wanted to give my kids the same experience. Then I thought that a lot of families would be in the same situation… and older people would benefit from it as well."

Ageing population 

Demographers say it’s not only grandchildren who are missing out on intergenerational support. Older people around the world are also feeling the impact of mass migration. 

The United Nations estimates that the number of people aged over 60 is expected to more than double by 2050, with 65 per cent of the increase likely to be seen in Asia.

Over the last couple of decades countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have seen many of their citizens migrate overseas, resulting in a knock-on effect on intergenerational relationships.  

In many of these countries social support systems are insufficient, with care of the elderly often falling to families and adult children.

Jessica's children in Nana Carey's garden
Jessica's children in Nan Carey's garden.
SBS News

Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University in Canberra, said, “This is something that we are seeing worldwide, intergenerational relationships are interrupted. That means that different financial and social supports are needed in those countries for elderly parents; they struggle to cope with looking after themselves.”

She says countries such as China and Japan are being forced to find new creative ways of adapting to their rapidly aging populations.

"There are facilities much like a youth centre … where people can go and participate in yoga and exercise that is suited for the elderly. We are seeing some very smart ways of coping with this change in family and migration patterns."

Numerous studies have looked at the impact of loneliness on different sections of the community, with seniors and migrants often identified as being most at risk.

Jessica says she understands many parents may have concerns about allowing strangers into their families but advised those looking for their own Nan Carey to choose programs that require all volunteers to complete police checks including working with children checks.

Beyond that, she insists parents should also spend some time with volunteers to see if they are a good match in terms of values and interests.

"The first meeting in non-obligational to see if there is a click. You can usually use your mother's instinct and the relationship will develop over time."

Nan Carey says many adults need to remember to have fun, and for her, spending time with children helps her do that.

“Children make you feel young … We don't play as we get older and it's lovely to play.”

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