A seasoned television journalist, Sally-Ann Roberts knows how to tame an uncertain landscape and subdue it. She survived 40 years covering and anchoring the news for WWL-TV in New Orleans. She covered 10 races for the mayor and in 2005 Hurricane Katrina, a storm that submerged four-fifths of the city in water and left her home rebuilding for nearly two years in unforgiving years. But as for the grandparents during the coronavirus pandemic, she says she met her match.
“I’m not doing the job I should be doing as a grandparent,” she said.
“Before Covid, we had the five grandchildren for ‘Sunday Time’ from the afternoon until after dark. Usually I would have time to put each of them aside. Give them your undivided attention. Well that’s over. Well, this particular time is rare. If we meet now, we won’t even be able to sit at the same table. “
Ms. Roberts had a different breed of grandparent in mind when she retired in 2018. At the start of the pandemic, she decided it would be safer for her and her family to keep her distance. She reduced her visits from once a week, often more, to about once a month. But even when they do see each other, the need to wear masks and maintain physical distance has changed the quality of their interactions, she says, making conversations with her grandchildren more “transactional” and less meaningful. Conversations with the oldest of her grandchildren, two boys, 5 and 12, focus more on class schedules and grades than on deeper conversations about faith and what she hopes for her future.
“You need me. Even if you don’t know, do it, ”said Ms. Roberts. “It’s important that I let them know that I see greatness in them,” she said.
Tashel Bordere, Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, and her wife, Dr. Kate Grossman, a pulmonologist, raises daughters 14 and 3 in Columbia, Missouri, hundreds of miles from their closest set of parents. Her children’s last personal visit to a grandparent was in December.
“We have invested a lot in airline tickets,” said Dr. Bordere about her pre-Covid-19 routine which included visiting or admitting her parents living in Louisiana and her in-laws living in New York. “We usually see a group of grandparents every other month.”
But Christmas 2019 was her last personal visit. It’s now been 10 months since part of the extended family shared a meal. The couple have canceled all vacations, including their usual spring and summer plans, because travel of any kind is too risky. The latest AARP survey of grandparents in 2019 shows they are not alone in making such decisions. More than “half of grandparents have at least one grandchild living more than 200 miles away,” the report said.
While some grandparents spent a lot of time with their grandchildren in the pandemic, many of those who live some distance get by on video calling.
Dr. Bordere and Dr. Grossman say their daughters have replaced cuddles from their grandparents with far less satisfying virtual waves and kisses.
“We are a diverse family. We are a same-sex couple with colored children, ”said Dr. Bordere. “Grandparents are essential to us because they give our children another group of people who will enhance their beauty and worth. It’s more difficult with Zoom or FaceTime. The quality of our conversations has changed, “she said, and although everyone has tried,” the girls are missing out. “
Although many families find video calling daunting, child development experts urge parents and grandparents not to give them up. Instead of office-style stilted zoom sessions, families can use digital connections in creative ways to nurture more meaningful relationships. Routine chores like helping grandchildren with homework or singing or practicing a musical instrument can build the most rewarding and lasting relationships.
“The path to meaningful, deep relationships is through a series of transactional relationships,” said Chuck Kalish, cognitive and developmental psychologist and senior science advisor with the Society for Research in Child Development. “The way a child has a rich relationship with a grandparent is when that grandparent is truly a resource in the child’s life.”
The key to improving relationships right now lies in increasing the number of shared experiences grandparents and grandchildren have, experts say. There are a few easy ways to do this.
Be part of a routine
Grandparents have the opportunity to become part of their grandchild’s daily routine from a distance. For older children, grandparents can be homework helpers and tutors. Dr. Arthur Lavin, a Cleveland pediatrician and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, has two school-age granddaughters living in Hong Kong. “We see their lessons and can comment on them. It actually strengthened our connection, ”he said.
For younger children, AARP family and care expert Amy Goyer suggests that grandparents buy two copies of the same book, keep one, and send the other to their grandchild to read together over a video or phone call. “That could be grandma’s job every night before the kid goes to bed,” she suggested. “That creates a routine. It’s their special thing. And it gives the parents a break. “
Let the child teach
Grandparents can also strengthen their connections by bowing to their grandchildren’s interests and allowing them to be their teachers. Remote online gaming is a perfect activity for this, said Dr. Kalish. “One of the things that kids really enjoy doing is feeling very safe,” he said. “The fact that they are better at it than their grandparents can be very rewarding.” And the child who gets to play a game when they call a grandparent – instead of being dragged away from a game when a grandparent calls – is likely to view the call as a reward rather than a chore. “Grandparents must be adults in this relationship,” said Dr. Kalish. “Children won’t come most of the way to meet their grandparents. The grandparents have to go most of the way to meet the child. “
Let the grandparents teach
Grandparents can also share family history, culture and traditions in real time in cooking classes, offering recipes and step-by-step instructions in their native language. “You could share your great grandmother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe and agree to make them both and then eat them together over the phone,” said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, program director at the Parent and Youth Communication Center at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
Use snail mail
Dr. Ginsburg also suggests families give up technology for a while and strengthen their bonds by sending letters. “It’s really important for children to know that adults are thinking of them even when we aren’t talking to them or presenting to them,” he said. Another benefit of letter writing is that they can be saved, leaving the possibility of grandchildren rereading them with new understanding and appreciation as they grow. Surprise packages do the trick too. “Everyone likes receiving packages,” said Dr. Ginsburg. “When you open it, you are literally reminded that someone was thinking of me.”
Parents can also encourage children to send art projects and drawings to grandparents.
These strategies may be worth maintaining even after the pandemic, as grandchildren and grandparents benefit from spending time together. In a 2018 special edition of the Journal of Contemporary Science that focused on grandparents, the researchers noted, “There is now a growing body of research showing that grandparent involvement with improved mental health improved Resilience and a pro-social behavior in grandchildren. “Other research has found this to be especially important when their parents are divorced, separated, or remarried. Likewise, the 2019 AARP survey found that grandparents who feel invested in their grandchildren’s lives enjoy better emotional and physical health.
For Mrs. Roberts in New Orleans, this type of targeted relationship building is urgently needed. “I’m losing time. I have fewer days ahead of me than behind me, ”she said. “I have to make a difference.”