Granny nannies: Why mature au pairs are all the rage

Most people think of an au pair as a young Swedish girl. However, a new breed of au pairs is now emerging with bags more experience who won’t go out clubbing until all hours. Nicky Solloway reports.

IT is a picture replicated up and down the country. Granny getting breakfast ready for 10-year-old Shona as mum gets herself ready for work. But Yolande isn’t Shona’s real grandmother, she is a new breed of granny au pairs, who are becoming increadingly popular acrosss Europe.

Louisa Ferrante, from Leeds, decided to set up her agency The Flying Granny after spotting a gap in the UK market.

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“If I was looking for an au pair for myself I think I would appreciate being able to choose an older woman,” says Louisa, who launched the business after spending time with her parents-in-law in Italy and realising what a brilliant resource grandparents could be.

“I started thinking we should import Italian grandparents as professional grandparents into the UK,” says Louisa, 33, who is married to Felipe, and has a two-year-old daughter, Luce.

“There are a lot of families who have a grandmother-shaped hole with no woman filling the grandmother’s role on a day-to-day basis.”

And she is not alone. Granny Au Pairs, set up by a German woman, has found a similar gap in the market for her clients.

Flying Grannies recruits women between the ages of 40 to 65 from across Europe, although Louisa also runs Go Native, an au pair agency for 18 to 30-year-olds.

“If we place a 21-year-old from Leeds with a host family in Madrid we absolutely expect them to be interested in the clubs, bars and nightlife of Madrid. If we place a 50-year-old woman with a host family we don’t feel it necessary to warn her that looking after three children with a hangover isn’t a pleasant way to spend a morning.”

Au pairing is legally defined as a cultural exchange and is not classed as employment. An au pair is given a small allowance, along with board and lodging. In exchange they are expected to provide around 25 hours a week of childcare and to do some light housework.

“Au pairs are not housekeepers,” Louisa is quick to point out.

“Their primary role is to care for the children and to exchange cultures, so you’re talking about playing with and entertaining the kids, taking them to activities, doing the school run and teaching them a bit of a foreign language.”

She says most of the women who have applied to become “flying grannies” so far have been mothers themselves and have juggled children, a career, a relationship and a household and now want to help another woman in the same position.

“It is obviously for women who are winding their careers down, not for women looking for a job.”

So far all the applicants have been single, with grown-up children.

But Louisa sees no reason why it would not appeal to a married woman who wishes to get away for a couple of months to travel and learn a language.

And for recession-hit British families, a “flying granny” could be a very valuable addition to the family.

At a recommended allowance of just £70 a week, she offers an economical alternative to expensive nurseries, childminders and babysitters. Single mum Alexa Collins, says this was a big consideration when she took on a “flying granny” four months ago.

At the age of 62, retired journalist, Yolande Mignot, from France has become an au pair to Alexa’s daughter Shona, 10.

“I think it’s all worked out very well,” says Alexa. “Everyone I talk to about it says ‘oh wow, what a great idea’.”

Alexa, who runs her own interior design company, often has to meet clients in the evenings and at weekends, so she was looking for someone who would be flexible.

“I certainly wouldn’t have welcomed the idea of a young au pair into my house. It is only me and my daughter. I’m self-employed and I don’t need someone else to look after, which is the impression I have of younger au pairs,” she says.

“We don’t have a screaming au pair. She’s not flustered about anything. She just has that maturity. Also, because there is only me I wanted someone who could take a certain amount of responsibility, who knows how a house is run and can just arrive and fit in. I suppose I have the impression that somebody younger would be out more and perhaps not be flexible enough to work with me.”

Before Yolande came along, Alexa often had to find a babysitter at short notice and since she had no family nearby, had no cover if a babysitter let her down.

She specifically wanted a French-speaking au pair because she has family in France, speaks some French herself, and wanted Shona to learn the language.

She adds: “Things are very much calmer than they were. Shona is not always shouting ‘where’s my lunch box?’ ‘Where’s my school uniform?’”

Yolande, who has two sons aged 25 and 21, but is not yet a grandmother, says becoming an au pair was what she had dreamed of doing when she was in her 20s, but her parents were against the idea.

When she retired last year, she wanted to travel. Working as an au pair now means she feels useful and is able to provide the type of help she would have appreciated when she was younger.

“It is the best solution to improve my English while sharing an English family life,” she says. “I wanted to help a busy mother, which is what I was like a few years ago.”

• For more information, visit www.theflyinggranny.com.