After raising seven kids, Shirley Afoa had looked forward to a quiet retirement.

But at 58, her family life is just beginning. She is now sole guardian for five of her grandchildren.

"Other grandparents at my age, they're at the stage that their children are grown up," she said.

"They can have a life. They can go out. But now you don't have that choice."


Afoa, from Papakura, took on her eldest son Anthony's three children four years ago when he died from throat cancer, aged 37. His partner had also died young.

Afoa later took on her daughter's two children when her partner became sick.

The youngest of the five children that Shirley Afoa is raising is 3. Photo / Greg Bowker
The youngest of the five children that Shirley Afoa is raising is 3. Photo / Greg Bowker

She is one of a growing group. The charitable trust Grandparents Raising Grandchildren now supports 4200 families, and has taken on 720 in the last year. The trend is partly driven by large numbers of children losing their parents to methamphetamine addiction.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren will today open its new, expanded national headquarters in Birkenhead, where it moved to cope with its bigger workload.

The organisation will also celebrate a new clothing allowance for children being raised by their grandparents, which will be available from Sunday and is worth around $1500 a year.

Afoa said clothing her grandkids - who are aged three, seven, 11, 12 and 15 - was one of many new challenges.

She had to give up her work as a teacher's assistant and go on a benefit. She had to buy a big van to transport her grandchildren. She had to start cooking huge meals again. There are rugby, basketball and netball fees. Some of the children get an orphan's benefit but that does not cover things like braces, at $6000.

She has no nights out because it's too hard to get a babysitter: "It's a lonely lifestyle."

But the biggest challenge is emotional. The five grandchildren are regularly reminded of their unusual family arrangement. It becomes apparent at Christmas, at school events, and at parent-teacher interviews.


"When they go to visit dad they go to a cemetery," Afoa said. "And it's been hard on them, very hard you know.

"One time we were in the supermarket and there was a guy doing shopping with his daughter, and just mucking around.

"And one of the girls said 'Grandma I need to go to the car'. Because she saw what she didn't have and what she missed out on having.

"My son was one of those jump in the car go to Pokeno for an ice cream sort of person, a spur of the moment thing. They sort of miss that. They miss dad."

Their biggest fear is losing their grandmother. She has already organised to pass them on to her eldest living son.

The children would get greater financial support if they went into state care. But that's out of the question, Afoa said.

"After putting my son down I get to wake up every day to see his children. It's the reason I get out of bed. That's the silver lining.

"Sometimes I'd like pull the blankets over my head and not get up at 6 o'clock in the morning. But you can't do that, you've got to keep going."