WHEN Elizabeth and Stephen Barnard found themselves with an empty nest, after their grown-up children left home, they decided to consider foster caring.

Initially they thought being middle-aged meant they wouldn't be eligible - but soon discovered this was in their favour.

This week the Telegraph & Argus reported on a "critical" shortage of foster families for teenagers in Bradford. The issue is highlighted this week - Fostering Week - by children's charity Barnardo's which says more older children are having to stay in residential care because families can't be found for them, reinforcing feelings of low self esteem among looked-after youngsters.

There are 750 foster families needed across Yorkshire, to help address a shortfall of 8,600 carers nationally.

But many people could be missing out on fostering because they think they won't meet the criteria. Kirklees Council has launched a campaign aimed at dispelling myths surrounding foster caring, which creates a barrier to people who think age, living arrangements and family circumstances count against them.

Last year the local authority placed 50 children with long-term foster families. But with 415 children currently in its care, and year-on-year increases, the council is urging people from all communities and backgrounds not to rule themselves out.

Stephen and Elizabeth, aged 53 and 51 respectively, have been foster carers since 2012. Their eldest son John, 28, left home to work in London and Richard, 24, teaches English in China.

“When my husband and I were approaching our fifties we had a joint mid-life crisis," says Elizabeth. "We’d always had a busy family life and after our boys left home we thought our lives would be a bit empty.

“It was my husband who suggested fostering but I was concerned we might be too old. Such fears were compounded after we went on a training course and were the oldest by more than a decade. But we were encouraged by Kirklees, who said our parenting experience was an advantage.

“We decided if we were going to make this work my husband would resign from his job and become a full time foster carer, while I would continue to work fulltime, the exact opposite of what we did parenting our own children."

In February 2012 the couple were approved to foster two or more children aged four-plus, and have since cared for five children on a long and short-term basis. They currently foster two girls, aged seven and ten, long-term until they reach adulthood or are able to live independently.

“We’ve had our ups and downs with fostering but given the chance we'd do it all again," says Elizabeth. "It has been a privilege to see the children in our care flourish, we know we've given them a better chance in life.

"Age is not a barrier to fostering. With age comes wisdom.”

Stephen says fostering has given him a new lease of life. “When our children left home I made a decision to make a change. I’d enjoyed my job as an assistant care manager but asked myself whether I wanted to spend the next 15 years or so helping people from behind a desk," he says. “Then I spotted an advert asking people to consider foster caring as a career change. I'd always perceived it as something largely done by stay-at-home mums, and Elizabeth and I thought we’d be rejected because of our age.

“But when we contacted Kirklees Council we were told age wouldn't be an issue. One of the mentors on our training course, who was a foster carer, was well into her 70s. Far from being a rarity, I’ve found there are other men like me who've given up their jobs to be foster carers.

"Fostering two school-aged girls suits our circumstances perfectly. As well as being able to pursue interests while they’re at school, I’ve been able to study for a diploma in the Children and Young People’s Workforce."

Paul Johnson, Kirklees Council’s Assistant Director, Family Support and Child Protection, said: “There’s no such thing as a typical foster carer. They come from all age groups and walks of life.

"However, there are many people out there who would make excellent foster carers but count themselves out simply because they think they won’t be eligible. In fact many are surprised to find, like Stephen and Elizabeth, that they are just what we’re looking for.

“We recognise that family dynamics vary so we take great care in assessing everyone on individual merits and circumstances, regardless of age, marital status, sexuality or employment status.

“Being a foster carer is a rewarding, challenging career that can make a real difference to a child’s life.”

* Kirklees Council will be holding a drop-in session for anyone interested in fostering at Huddersfield Town Hall on Wednesday, January 28 from 3pm-6.30pm.

Visit kirklees.gov.uk/fostering or call 0800 389 0086.