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The pandemic makes it difficult for seniors to nurture relationships with their grandchildren

As a veteran television journalist, Sally-Ann Roberts knows how to tame an unsteady landscape and will it into submission. She survived 40 years reporting and anchoring the news for WWL-TV in New Orleans, covering 10 races for mayor and, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a storm that submerged four-fifths of the city in water and left her rebuilding her home for nearly two unforgiving years. But as far as grandparenting during the coronavirus pandemic, she says she’s met her match.

“I am not doing the job I should be doing as a grandparent,” she said.

“Before COVID, we’d have the five grandkids over for ‘Sunday Time,’ from the afternoon until after dark. I’d usually have time to take each one of them aside. Give them each undivided attention. Now, that’s ended. Now, that special time is rare. Now, when we get together, we can’t even sit at the same table.”

Roberts had a different kind of grandparenting in mind when she retired in 2018. Early on in the pandemic, she decided it would be safer for her and her family if she kept her distance. She reduced their visits from once a week, often more, to about once a month. Yet even when they do see each other, the need to wear masks and maintain physical distance has changed the quality of her interactions, she says, making conversations with her grandchildren more “transactional” and less meaningful. Conversations now with the oldest of her grandchildren — two boys, 5 and 12 — center more on schedules and grades rather than deeper talks about faith and what she hopes for their future.

“They need me. Even if they don’t know it, they do,” Roberts said. “It’s important I let them know I see greatness in them,” she said.

The key to heightening relationships right now is increasing the number of shared experiences grandparents and grandchildren have, experts say. There are a few simple ways to do this.

Be part of a routine

Grandparents have an opportunity to become part of their grandchild’s daily routine, even remotely. 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 granddaughters, one school age, who live in Hong Kong. “We see her lessons and we can comment on them. It’s actually strengthened our connection,” he said.

For younger children, AARP’s family and caregiving expert, Amy Goyer, suggests grandparents buy two copies of the same book, keeping one and mailing the other to their grandchild to read together over a video or phone call. “That could be Grandma’s job every night before the child goes to bed,” she suggested. “That establishes 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 bending to their grandchildren’s interests and allowing them to be their teachers. Remote online gaming is a perfect activity for this, said Chuck Kalish, a cognitive and developmental psychologist and senior adviser for science at the Society for Research in Child Development. “One of the things kids really like to do is feel super confident,” he said. “The fact they might be better at it than their grandparents, that can be super rewarding.” And the child who gets to play a game on a call with a grandparent — rather than being pulled away from a game when a grandparent calls — will probably see the call as a treat rather than a chore.

Let the grandparent teach

Grandparents may also pass along family history, culture and traditions via real-time cooking lessons, 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 both make them and then eat them together on the phone,” offered Dr. Ken Ginsburg, director of programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Use snail mail

Ginsburg also suggests families ditch technology at times and fortify their bonds by sending letters. “It’s really important for children to know that adults think about them even when we’re not talking to them or present with them,” he said. Another upside of writing letters is that they can be saved, leaving open the possibility that grandchildren will reread them with new understanding and appreciation as they grow. Surprise packages also do the trick. “Everybody likes receiving packages,” Ginsburg said. “When you open it up, you’re literally reminded, someone was thinking about me.”

Parents may also encourage children to send art projects and drawings to grandparents.

These strategies may be worth keeping up even after the pandemic, because grandchildren and grandparents benefit from spending time together.

To Roberts in New Orleans, this kind of purposeful relationship building feels urgent. “I’m losing time. I have fewer days ahead of me than I have behind me,” she said. “I need to make an impact.”

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