The Guardian, 24 July 2011
Last October, just a month after arriving in Delhi, Lucie Flach-Siebenlist came down with dengue fever – but she never considered returning home to Germany. After all, the 60-year-old had dreamed of travelling since she was a young girl. But an early marriage, children and a lack of money meant she was unable to until she discovered Granny Au Pair.
“I was alone, my children are grown up and I thought I’d like to do something meaningful. I just didn’t know what or how,” she says.
When she came across an agency that places older women with families abroad, her dream of visiting India became possible.
The Hamburg-based agency found her a position minding the eight-year-old son of a single German woman living in Delhi. For six months Flach-Siebenlist picked him up from school, helped him with his homework and played with him. The rest of the time she had to herself to explore the city and take trips around India. “I learned so much. It was wonderful. I don’t regret a single second.”
Flach-Siebenslist is one of 50 women the agency’s founder, Michaela Hansen, has so far placed with families around the world since launching in January 2010. As well as India, Granny Au Pair has sent mature au pairs to Canada, Australia, the UK, Jordan, France, Namibia and Italy. And there are another 350 women on her books hoping to find a family to stay with for anything from three months to a year.
Hansen, 50, came up with the idea while watching a TV programme about young au pairs. “I thought: Why isn’t there something similar for older women?” A few months later she set up Granny Au Pair.
The women who have registered range in age from 49 to 76, though most are in their 60s. Many have already raised families and now want to travel and learn a language.
Like most au pairs, they take care of children in exchange for room and board. There is usually no pay, though the family and au pair are free to come to an arrangement; many hosts pay for flights and give some pocket money. The cost to register is €35 and then another €250 when women are found a placement.
Hansen says the advantage for the families is that, unlike some teenage au pairs, older women are likely to have had experience of childcare. “And the families want someone they can rely on 100%.” It helps that Germans have a reputation for being reliable and hardworking, she adds.
There can, of course, be stumbling blocks. Some families may feel uncomfortable telling an older person what to do and some women can find it hard to adjust to a different family. “I always tell the women, they can’t go into a family and start telling them how to raise their children. A bit of tolerance is required from both sides.”
Hansen says most women cope well. The type of person who signs up usually has a taste for adventure and is independent. “It’s not like booking a holiday at a travel agency,” says Hansen. “They have to get used to a new culture and to a new family.”
For Flach-Siebenlist that was part of the attraction. “I think it’s much better to be with a family; to really dive into a culture.”
She is already planning her next trips. First she will stay with a farming family in the mountains of South Tyrol to take care of their elderly grandmother while they carry out the harvest. Then she hopes to stay with a family in Madagascar at the end of the year. “I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing. I would be bored to death.”
Anke Vendt also considers herself the adventurous type. That’s why the 62-year-old decided to head off into the unknown last year. After reading an article about Granny Au Pair, she signed up and found herself placed with a family in Andalucía, minding two teenage children whose parents were frequently away on business trips. She had plenty of free time and used it to explore her surroundings.
“I always like to get to know a country and the people when I go on holiday,” she explains. “And it was an opportunity to learn Spanish and to see some of the country beyond the tourist traps.”
She enjoyed the experience so much she has stayed with the same family four times, the most recent stint finished just last week.
The children are getting older, so she is not sure how much longer their parents will need her. “Then I can imagine going to another family.”
It doesn’t have to be in Spain. “I’m free, I can go anywhere.”
Originally Published in The Guardian: