Grandparenting at a Distance

Grandchildren need their grandparents and vice-versa.

Early in the pandemic, a friend of mine set up regular video calls between her kids and her parents. But after a few weeks of this, her parents exploded at her. They wanted to hold their grandkids, not just see their faces on a screen. My friend called me and burst into tears. She was terrified of being the cause of her parents’ deaths. 

This past year has reminded many of us how important grandparents are. If we are lucky enough to have them, we know that grandparents are often the ones who bring families together. They entertain us with their stories, share their wisdom, offer guidance, and provide family support (they are also enthusiastic babysitters!). No wonder it’s so hard to be apart from them, and for them to be apart from us.

I suggested my friend call her parents back and share her feelings with them—while hugging herself tightly—and that her parents do the same. They got on a video call, and everyone wrapped their arms around their torsos. While this couldn’t replace the magic of a real hug, it helped them all calm down, connect, and hear each other.

COVID-19 Strains Intergenerational Relationships

The way we interact with each other causes chemical changes in our bodies. Nurturing interactions engage a process called autonomic co-regulation, which causes positive changes that boost our physical and emotional health. Co-regulation makes us feel safe, which puts our bodies in the state they need to be in for optimal brain development and learning, immune response, heart health, digestion, memory sorting, quality of sleep, healthy emotional responses, and better behavior regulation.

In an effort to protect the older generation (vital in the face of a pandemic that has ravaged the elderly), we have deprived them, ourselves and our children of the health benefits of autonomic co-regulation. Feeling lonely increases a person’s mortality risk by 45%—that’s as high a risk as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. By just three months into the pandemic, 56% of older adults had already reported feeling isolated and lonely. And 51% of mothers of young children were feeling “serious loneliness” after being cut off from their family support. For adults who lack meaningful relationships, the risks of heart attack and stroke both go up about 30%, and diseases like Alzheimer’s go up by as much as 50%. Co-regulation protects against the risk factors of loneliness.

When we’re together, we can help our bodies co-regulate by engaging our senses (touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste) while communicating emotionally with each other. Hugs are great because they stimulate many senses simultaneously (in particular, touch and smell). We have touch receptors in our torso that respond to deep pressure; that’s why a tight hug is so calming, and why it’s so easy to share deep emotions when hugging.

The devastating truth is that it remains unsafe for most of us to gather in person the way we used to, even with the vaccine rollout in effect. But it is important that we connect, and there are things we can do, even from afar:

  • Use touch to reconnect emotionally, even from afar:
    • Hug yourselves tightly while breathing deeply, in unison. Look at each other’s faces (on video chat, or in person) and express yourselves emotionally, whether it’s “I’m sad I can’t be with you in person,” or “When we can be together, I’m going to hug you so tight!”
    • On Zoom, you both can run your fingertips up and down your arms, gently stroke your face, or rub your palms together slowly. Doing this together is calming and especially helpful at bedtime.
  • Smell is a powerful sense that is deeply tied to memory and emotion:
    • Send each other a piece of clothing and snuggle up with it.
    • Maybe your child can send a teddy bear they often sleep with for Gran to take care of for a while.
    • Maybe Grandpa can send a soft flannel shirt, and your child can sleep with it or hold it when he calls.
  • If you miss reading together:
    • Grandparents can buy a copy of a child’s favorite book and read to them at bedtime (while the child looks at their own copy of the book).
    • If you’re trying to figure out where to point the camera: it’s more important that your child see the expressions on their grandparents’ faces while they read, than the words or pictures in the book.
  • If cooking together was meaningful:
    • Call Grandma or Grandpa when you get home from the store—have your child unpack the items and present what you bought.
    • Come up with age-appropriate games to play: group groceries by color, count how many of each fruit and vegetable you bought, build structures out of boxes of pasta, or rank the items from least to most delicious.
    • Kids of any age can ask their grandparents what they should make with the ingredients. Share favorite family recipes, then cook the same meal and enjoy it together over video chat.
    • Bake treats for each other, send them in the mail, and open them while on Zoom together.
  • Routines are especially beneficial to children’s development and can help interactions with grandparents stay intimate and meaningful:
    • Maybe Nana can help with homework after school, and afterwards play a game.
    • Maybe Poppy can call some nights at bedtime to sing lullabies.
    • There are plenty of online games you can play together or shows you can watch together.
  • If religion is part of your family’s life, attend virtual services together, read scripture, or pray together. Those who live together should hold hands, hug, look into each other’s eyes, sing, dance, or connect in any way that feels meaningful.

  • Help your children seek and value their grandparents’ wisdom and experience:
    • If a problem arises, suggest calling Granddad for a solution.
    • If a child is bored, suggest calling Nan for some creative ideas.

Grandparents are in a unique position to be a source of support for your child, often without the complications of a day-to-day relationship. They fill a different role in your child’s life than you do, and your child (and you) can benefit from that.

One of the most touching moments in this pandemic was when a friend and her elderly mother dropped off an entire chicken dinner that they had made for me, simply because my friend missed hugging me. It’s vital to keep family and close friends present in our minds and hearts. Making time to connect with each other will help us weather this terrible separation.

Let’s take care of each other,

Martha G. Welch, MD, DFAPA
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program