Child Development

The Grandparent Connection: Finding ways to stay close to grandkids

Are close relationships possible for grandparents and grandchildren who don’t live geographically close?

Grandparents who live at a distance should not be worried if their contact with grandchildren isn’t daily or weekly, says Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development, Falk College at Syracuse University. What’s important is personalizing the interaction that happens when grandparent and grandchild are together.

Betsy Bedigian likes to Skype with her grandchildren, Jack, 6, and Eliza, 2.

“Be glad of how much love you can exchange just by doing things with them,” she says. “If they want to play Candy Land or Parcheesi, play it with them, bike ride with them. Do something personal that’s really dependent on that child’s interests. When it’s bedtime, sing a lullaby, rub their back, read them a story. It’s different than, ‘I’ll take you to the movies, I’ll take you to have some ice cream.’”

That one-on-one focus cements the relationship, according to Honig. “Personalized attention makes human beings feel that, ‘Somebody knows who I am, somebody cares about me personally.’ If you don’t personalize it, what good is it if you’re there every single day? When you’re there, make it personalized time.”

Be Physically There

Her busy full-time job makes a huge difference in her availability, Baldwinsville resident Betsy Bedigian knows, but she uses mobile and online technology to stay a part of the lives of her two grandchildren, Jack, age 6, and Eliza, 2. She also makes the effort to travel often.

“What I try to do is to get myself to Wisconsin physically three or four times a year. You’ve got to figure out how you can be present; that’s really what it’s all about. Social media, the whole technology link, just makes it easy.”

Her philosophy has been shaped by the experience of her own parents as grandparents. They spent 14 years sailing the Virgin Islands yet still were close to her children, Bedigian says.

“They included us in their adventures, and they created memories with their grandchildren. So, it’s thinking about, ‘How can I be present?’ Managing the long-term connection is creating a relationship with my grandchildren individually and also going and spending time with them.”

Bedigian cherishes the homemade cards and notes of her grandson. She started a journal of “Letters to Jack” to give him when he’s in his 20s. And she tries to temper her need to reach out with the realities of her daughter’s busy life.

“I don’t think grandparents need to become an additional stressor,” she says. “I think it’s really important, regardless of where the child is located, to be cognizant about the clues your children are giving you about how involved they want you to be in that child’s life, and that you don’t overstep your boundaries. I absolutely adore my grandchildren: They’re wonderful. Everybody’s view about how involved that relationship is is different. But I do think you have to be intentional about it. It’s hard. We just do the best we can.”

Bridging the Distance

For Fay and Dave Eastwood of Verona, treks to New York City were pretty easy to manage for the first year of their granddaughter’s life. When their son-in-law’s job meant a move to Europe, the Eastwoods took the change in stride. They’ve visited the family in Europe three times over the past year or so and rely on technology otherwise. 

“I feel so grateful that we have the technology to keep in touch and the opportunity and resources to travel,” Fay Eastwood says.

Dave Eastwood says visiting in person “is good for morale. It is what it is: You make the best of every situation.”

Their advice for others facing grandparenting at a distance: “Learn to use technology. If you don’t know how, get someone to teach you. It’s easy and it provides an almost-there feel and some grandparent satisfaction,” says Dave, an avid Skype user. “We do kisses and pretend hugs and tickle. All you’ve got to do is reach out your fingers and pretend to tickle her. She giggles and reaches back.”

Related: Making the Right Change: Elders and their families have options for the next phase of life

“I don’t know how people coped back in the old days. I had one grandmother in Alabama but I felt very close to her,” Fay says. “Our kids were very close to my mother. It made me that much more determined that I was going to have that. I said, ‘I don’t want this kid growing up not knowing who we are, and I think we’re doing pretty well at that.’”

The Eastwoods buy the books their granddaughter has in nursery school to read together online. Google mobile texting has been a godsend. “I know I can just text my daughter on the phone, say I’m going to be home in 15 minutes, are you going to be around? We probably talk with them more now than we did when they were in New York City. It’s very, very nice,” Fay adds.

“I said, ‘I don’t want this kid growing up not knowing who we are, and I think we’re doing pretty well at that.’” — Fay Eastwood

Aurora, the only grandchild of Kristin Walcott and her husband, Peter, lives across the country in Los Angeles. Their son’s musical career requires frequent travel. So, schedules and the distance between coasts both are challenges, according to Kristin Walcott. Regardless, she and Peter stay close to their granddaughter by sending picture postcards often.

“Aurora likes those; they’ll send me a picture of her chewing them,” Kristin says with a chuckle. “We make her greeting cards. We planted flowers in our garden and took a picture of those with her name on a poster, naming it, ‘Aurora’s pansies,’ and sent that.”

The Walcotts’ connection to their only grandchild was instant and now that feeling is always present. “It floored us,” Kristin says. “The emotion of love is just so overwhelming. Oh, I wish I had lots of ideas about how to do this long-distance thing, but the biggest thing we determined was that we’ve got to see that child two times a year. Maybe they will start to travel here, but in the meanwhile, we’ve got to see her twice a year. That’s the biggest deal for us.”

A Togetherness Book

Facetime, a live-streaming Facebook app, is essential for Sari Zucker Signorelli, of DeWitt, who uses it to keep up with her 1-year-old granddaughter in New Jersey.

Travel is limited by Sari’s and her husband’s full-time jobs, so they made a special gift for their granddaughter, a photo album of first-year photographs and special milestone events. “It’s a gift so clearly from Grandma and Grandpa. As she gets older she will know we were there and looking over her.”

Signorelli encourages her son to help the couple stay involved over the miles, too. “I make my son send photos every single week; I hold them hostage for photos,” she says. “They also send videos, such as when she took her first steps.”

Her philosophy on being an involved grandparent is simple: “Moments are more important than things. We don’t send a lot of toys. But we try to keep up a fairly steady presence, and when we see her in person, that’s reinforced.”

Mary Dunn-Blazey feels fortunate to live within an hour’s drive of 3-year-old Juliana. Still, she’s busy all week with her bakery business, Mary’s Madness, and her daughter and son-in-law have busy schedules, too. So Mary employs technology to stay close between visits. Sunday-night chats, when everyone’s relaxed and can be silly together, are treasured, says Dunn-Blazey, a Syracuse resident.   

“I’m very fortunate. I can put the brakes on everything and go see her,” she admits. “Laundry be damned. That’ll be there tomorrow, and I’ve got lots more clothes.”

Because Dunn-Blazey grew up with both sets of grandparents living just a mile or two from her house, that experience influenced her own grandparenting. “I have always tried to remember how important my grandparents were in my world, and I want Juliana to remember me the way I remembered them.”

Good for Everyone

Older adults who are able to maintain relationships across generations benefit from doing so, notes Sharon A. Brangman, M.D., chief of geriatrics at Upstate Medical University.

Typically, as people age, they don’t want to seem a burden to their families, so being able to do something that’s seen as helping the family—like being an involved grandparent—is beneficial for them, Brangman says.

“Listening to the kids, being a sounding board, being able to make suggestions: These are important contributions grandparents can make. Giving the time and being connected without having a task that needs to be done is beneficial. Being a grandparent who is available to the grandchildren is helpful to the grandparent—and it’s very important for the grandchild, also.”

Tips for Staying Close

While long distances can diminish the amount of in-person time grandparents can spend with grandchildren, there are ways for the generations to be close regardless.

“The secret to bonding with grandchildren is shared experiences, and you can still have those from a distance,” writes Amy Goyer, AARP aging and family expert. Whatever form of communication grandparents may use to stay in touch, they need to understand the irreplaceable qualities they can offer their grandchildren.

“Above all, remember the key roles you play as a grandparent are those of patient listener then giver of unconditional love.  Allow those qualities to erase the miles.”

The author of Things to Do Now That You’re a Grandparent offers several useful tips:

  • Maximize in-person visits by creating shared memories, having new adventures and interacting at the child’s level.
  • Follow up visits with online scrapbooking and talks of the times shared.
  • Use technology—such as video chat—to keep the visuals going and show each other what you’ve been up to.
  • Use apps such as Facetime and Tango to read books together, “attend” school programs and “be” at extracurricular activities.
  • Get help from online tutorials or in-person technology training (or have older grandchildren teach you) if you’re uneasy about your tech skills.
  • Send your grandchild pictures and videos of what’s going on in your life.
  • Keep an online calendar of family events and important occasions. That lets you keep abreast of activities and send good-luck wishes before a ball game or congratulations after a recital.
  • “Old school” telephone calls, letters and cards are still good ways to stay in touch.

For more information, visit AARP’s website and Amy Goyer’s blog.

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