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How to keep grandparents and grandchildren connected in new ways, from a distance

For a generation not raised on Zoom, there are challenges but simple joys, too

A 7-month-old interacts with his grandmother on a FaceTime call from his crib  last month.
A 7-month-old interacts with his grandmother on a FaceTime call from his crib last month.Julie Bufkin/Associated Press

One of the saddest consequences of social distancing has been the loss of in-person connection between children and their grandparents — especially grandparents who aren’t adept at Zoom or FaceTime.

“The biggest challenge we see is that the older generation for the most part is not yet really technically savvy, and the younger generation is increasingly spending so much time using tech that it creates a big divide between those who are comfortable and those who aren’t,” says Lynda Doctoroff Bussgang, director of the Adam and Matan Adelson Multigenerational Program at Dedham’s Hebrew SeniorLife. “This pandemic has drawn more of a line.”

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Even for those who do use tech, it’s a juggle. I always thought the sandwich generation was a martyr’s slogan drummed up by the media until I lived it. Yesterday, I spent part of my day trying to orchestrate my son’s online learning schedule and part of it on hold tracking my parents’ missing Instacart order. It was 9 p.m. before I realized my kids hadn’t even called their grandparents.

How do we turn these interactions into something meaningful instead of a perfunctory call or glitchy Zoom? Here are (doable, low-stress) ideas.

Set a routine. “Older adults crave routine,” Bussgang says. Try to block off a regular check-in time, if you can; if not, a couple of “hi!” texts during the day is better than nothing. Make your kids the go-betweens. If they’re old enough to use a phone, have them text photos of their latest Lego creation or couch fort. “The burden doesn’t have to be on you,” she says.

Mail letters. You can do it on your own time, and it gives kids a creative project. It also feels familiar to Baby Boomers. “One method of communication that has been most comfortable for the older generation is the use of mail. This is a really great way for kids to connect and share a piece of themselves with their grandparents — to send pictures and drawings and notes, and to practice their writing skills,” she says. Plus, who doesn’t like getting mail? (And, as far as we know, it’s still safe to receive.)

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Make a care package. Bussgang says residents of Dedham’s Hebrew SeniorLife love getting care packages: puzzle books, crossword puzzles, word searches, you name it. Set up an exchange with grandparents. One week, you mail a treat; the next week, they mail something back. Doesn’t need to be something store-bought, since nobody should leave the house unnecessarily. Maybe it’s photos from an old album; maybe it’s a favorite family recipe written on an index card.

Get cultured. Make dates to watch a TV show or movie at the same time. Then you’ll have something to discuss next time you check in, instead of the awkward, “So, what did you do today?” (Chances are, not much.)

Do a virtual activity. For the tech-savvier set, Bussgang suggests turning weekend check-ins into something activity-focused, such as Zoom cooking lessons or knitting. “It’s about getting creative with sharing skills,” she says. Even if you don’t have hidden talents, don’t give up: a game of Bingo works just fine.

Play interviewer. Turn your kids into mini Chris Cuomos. Ask them to write down weird or wacky things they’ve always wanted to learn about the family and fire away. “Kids want stories about people they know and things they can relate to,” Bussgang says. Think hyperbole, disaster, and good guys versus bad guys: tales of worst family vacations ever or the biggest fight they ever had to break up between siblings. (Bonus if you’re the one who got in trouble.) “Make it story-based,” Bussgang says.

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Enlist grandparents as teachers. With most kids doing some form of home-schooling, why not ask your parents to run a class?

“Give them a role in your kids’ education,” Bussgang suggests. One of her residents is teaching Russian math to her grandchildren; another is conducting a twice-weekly history lesson. Do it online, over the phone, whatever works. It fosters a new type of purposeful connection — you might discover that dad is a chemistry whiz or mom has a surprising aptitude for long division — and, while everyone’s out of school until who knows when, it gives kids and grandparents something to research and learn about together. Plus, it gives you a block of time to check your e-mail, do some work, or track down your missing groceries.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.