Those of us who suffer from "empty nest syndrome" know all too well how lonely our later years can feel in the family home, whether our partners are there to pick us up or not. But Mary Pitman, 66, has found the perfect way to keep life meaningful: She and husband, Les, 70, have been foster parents since their 50s, taking care of 26 children over the years — and they’re still fostering today.
“We always wanted to help,” Mary said. “After Les and I had our first two children, we tried to adopt. However, we didn’t have the money to qualify, and there wasn’t enough financial support to give up work (as children in care require constant supervision, at least to begin with). So we had a third child of our own, but we never gave up hope.”
Once the Pitmans’ children had grown up and left home, they knew that the time was right to apply to become foster parents.
“I still had those protective instincts,” said Mary.
There was no arguing with the ex-nurse-turned-driving-instructor, whose past jobs meant she was well versed in dealing with babies with special needs, not to mention any unresponsive adolescents whom she had been tasked with getting behind the wheel. In fact, Mary believes that life experience makes older people ideal carers, and there are definite advantages to fostering in later life.
“Fostering could be a real bonus for anyone of pensionable age — as part of the financial help can be put towards household bills,” said Mary. “Instead of cooking for one or two, you find yourself going back to roast dinners and the tradition of everyone sitting around the dinner table together, which is lovely. But most of all, it makes a refreshing change to be of help. Fostering is a challenge, but one that those who are willing to commit can really apply themselves to.”
Don’t worry that the age gap might put children off. “None of our children reacted particularly to our age,” Mary said. “They just accepted that we had taken them on. But your foster agency will help you decide if there’s a specific age range or challenge that you’d be most compatible with. If caring for babies, toddlers, or disabled children wouldn’t suit you for whatever reason, then you would never be expected to take on a child that you would struggle to care for.”
Times have changed, as Mary explained. Carers are now looked after by a foster agency, which in turn works with social services to place a foster child with you. So there is support for carers too, and your age is not a barrier, provided you are in good health.
However, with Les’s support — he also took early retirement to help out at home — Mary has been able to give her time and love to many children with disabilities, as well as young moms who need help getting grips on motherhood. “You have to be open-minded,” Mary said. “We once had a 16-year-old mom whose own mother had been in jail for most of her life. Despite having looked after her younger brother for years, social services felt that the girl would benefit from bringing her baby up in a responsible environment. So, they came to us straight from the hospital and were here for eight months. In the end, she went on to have her own apartment and look after the baby herself...it was a very special success story.”
But Mary and Les have always had their hands full. The first placement they received was three siblings, all under the age of 4! “It was an almost overnight transformation,” Mary remembered. “We qualified on the Thursday and had those three by the Tuesday...the girl we’ve got now arrived with just two hours’ notice.”
Currently, the Pitmans look after a 15-year-old autistic boy and a young lady of 20 who functions at around the age of 5. “They’ve been with us for eight years, which is a fairly long-term arrangement,” Mary said. “And though we had the space to take on more cases, for just a few months or so depending on circumstances, you have to do what’s right for the children you’ve already got. For us, that meant having mothers and babies, rather than more youngsters.”
With all this going on, it’s a wonder Mary has any time to herself. “Despite everything, I swim three times a week,” she says. “50 lengths is a great way to relax! And of course we take holidays — carers may do that with or without the children. We do both.”
Watch the video below to see what parents want you to know about autism.
Mary recalled fond memories of caravanning in France. “Many of my nine grandchildren were young when we had our first foster children. They all grew up and went on holidays together. Not only did it make the newcomers feel part of a family, but it was an eye-opener for my grandchildren. They learned that life could be hard, and we were lucky.”
Mary’s advice to anyone thinking of fostering is simple: “Be flexible. Imagine how you would feel if you’d been treated how these children have been, and show them the better things in life. Fostering is just like bringing up your own children. They won’t thank you for being there; they just know you’re their mom. And the unconditional care you give them...that’s how it should be.”
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