Senior Australian of the Year 2019, Dr Suzanne Packer AM in her garden in Canberra.
Senior Australian of the Year 2019, Dr Suzanne Packer AM in her garden in Canberra. Tracey Johnstone

Curious children's garden guardian puts focus on the kids

NESTLED in the corner of a summer-dried garden in Canberra is a magical play place for young ones to imagine, create and evolve, in safety. Its guardian is paediatrician and Senior Australian of the Year 2019, Dr Suzanne Packer AM.

There are no brick walls; just a little timber path winding its way under the thick brush, a mushroom patch, a fishpond, sandpit, touches of folk art and a boisterous cubby house. For the more active there is a hop-scotch painted on the brick pathway nearby.

The quaint welcome sign calls the neighbourhood school children to discover what is within, under the careful guidance of an adult.

"My focus is children in Australia," Dr Packer said determinedly.

Her new role of Senior Australian of the Year will give the children's guardian a greater voice. She will be travelling Australia for the Department of Health sharing her message; "how can we grow them (children) to be the best possible adults for Australia".

"It takes more than the family to do that," Dr Packer adds.

And she has grandparents in her sights.

"We have kids living very different lives and the role of grandparents in these lives has become more critical," she said.

"Grandparents, despite their busy lives, tend to have more time than parents and they have this one-eyed devotion to these special little people which is not spoiling them, but actually helping the child identify itself as an individual."

What we do to them, for them and with them

Dr Packer will be encouraging senior Australians to think how they can enhance lives of their grandchildren. Those sharing interactions will help to develop the child's brain.

Reinforcement, reassurance, embellishment - each she says goes towards their emotional and cognitive development.

Dr Packer's work with the Child at Risk unit at Canberra Hospital exposed her to many vulnerable and damaged children, and their families. "I followed up a number of these kids until they were adults," she said. "You can not underestimate the value of caring-involved grandparents."

She cautions that you can't assume that all grandparents will be great carers. Some of them are part of the pathology she says, potentially looking for what the kids can do for them rather than what they can do for the kids.

We're sitting at Dr Packer's kitchen table which looks out to an array of colourful hanging baskets and the play area, as we chat about her national award which celebrates her contribution to the wellbeing and safety of children.

The guardian is retired from her paediatric practice, but that's about the only retiring the 76-year-old is doing. She knows there is much more for her to do.

Dr Packer is vice-president of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and chair of the Mr Fluffy Asbestos Response community group.

What's next ?

In retirement she has plans, and here Dr Packer has a chuckle, to write some children's booklets about her time as a little girl where there wasn't plastic, or television and the milk was delivered by horse and cart.

"It's about getting the kids to think that there was good and bad in history," she said. It's what she encourages other grandparents to do, to record memories from their youth and share them with younger generations; how else will they learn what it was like for their grandparents she asks.

Dr Packer is also a carer for her sister Prue, 75, who has dementia and is confined to a wheelchair, and lives with Dr Packer. And, much her delight, she is intimately involved in the lives of her four grandchildren - one aged three, two under two and one under one.

Within her vibrant and complex life that has Dr Packer pulled in many directions each day and with the background sounds of little children joyfully playing in her secret garden, she retains in the forefront of her mind; "No adult can say, 'oh yeah kids, nothing to do with me'. Kids are to do with everybody."

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