German au pairs may have a reputation for efficiency, but a Hamburg agency has now gone a step further by adding the ingredients of age and experience to the winning female export by providing a "granny au pair" service for stressed foreign families with young children.
It not unknown for party-mad teenage girls with boyfriend problems to turn the au pair experience into a nightmare. However, Michaela Hansen, the 50-year-old founder of Hamburg's Granny Au Pair agency is certain she has found the answer in maturity.
"Older women are usually better than younger au pairs because they have more experience of life," she told The Independent. "Families like to take them on because they are reliable, serious and know how to be strict."
Mrs Hansen set up her agency 18 months ago and has since helped provide families the world over with more than 50 mature German au pairs aged between 50 and 70. Many of her applicants are women who have brought up families of their own and are keen to travel and learn another language.
"A financial consultant couple in London has just taken on a granny au pair," Mrs Hansen said, "She is in her 60s and wants to learn proper English, and they needed someone to look after the children while they are off on business. The set-up suits everyone," she added.
Embjörg Elster, 59, a retired air hostess from Bavaria, was one of the first granny au pairs. After her two grown-up daughters left home, she accepted a job in Hamburg helping to look after four children aged between three and 12. "What mattered was having the feeling of still being useful," she said.
Granny Au Pair also provides aid agencies abroad with experienced female staff. So after Hamburg, Mrs Elster went to Jordan where she is working in a project to help partially-sighted children. She says the experience has enabled her to fulfil a lifelong dream.
Mrs Hansen said her own experience encouraged her to start the business. Married at 19, she had her first child at 20 and the second when she was 21. She had no chance of becoming an au pair when young. "I got the urge to travel every time I watched a Sunday afternoon TV series about au pair girls," she said. "When I grew older, I thought there must be plenty of women of my age who still yearn to go abroad. If not now, when?" she asked.