Long distance grandparenting

Photo from iStock

In the classic children’s story, Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder describes the parting of the Charles Ingalls family from the rest of the clan. “Grandma and all the aunts hugged and kissed them and hugged and kissed them again, saying good-by.” Such was the scene when our family left a major metropolis 13 years ago and headed for the rural countryside-leaving my parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, 1,000 miles behind.

At first, the transition was difficult. My mother, I think, had the hardest adjustment. Over time, however, she began to see the benefits.

Fostering a long distance relationship between children and adults takes effort—on all sides. But it can be done. Here are some ideas proven to work for other families (even mine!):

Get online

As daunting as it may seem for a lot of older folks, social networking via the Internet is how people communicate today. But social networking, really, is nothing new. You already have a network: It includes your family, classmates you still keep in touch with, members of your church or bridge club, and/or those you see at the gym or elsewhere.

In the computer realm, various methods of social networking are simply a means for people to group themselves and find each other online. Facebook currently is the most popular social networking website [Editor’s note: Nine years after this article published, Facebook, remains the most popular]. On it, you will find personal pages, business pages, fan pages for celebrities, and pages for various organizations. You join up with others on Facebook by ‘friending’ each other and then following what they post on their pages. Also, understand that while having a paper photograph to frame for the top of the piano is what you’re accustomed to, today’s generation is happy with viewing photos via computer. You will find that Facebook is where many people post pictures of themselves and their families.

Try Zoom or Google Meet

Install Zoom‘s software or use Meet under in your Google account. These interfaces allow people to video call each other free of charge (Zoom is free up to 40 minutes). Using a webcam (usually it’s just a small hole on the top center of your screen, not a separate camera), you are able to see the person you are talking to on your computer screen, and they can see you.

While you won’t be able to “lock eyes” as you might in a regular in-person conversation, these tools are a marvelous means of connecting; the next best thing to being there.

Send packages

Collect goodies for your distant grandchildren. Whenever you see a little something you think one of them would like, buy it—even if it’s just a curiosity from a yard sale down the street. Pick up books, toys, music, even clothes—and pop them in the mail. Don’t worry about spoiling them-that’s what grandparents are supposed to do! When purchasing though, keep the cost of postage in mind. And remember that sending several small packages over the course of the year is better than one huge one.

Text message

Your son or daughter no doubt texts with their older children quite often, from when to pick up from a soccer practice to where they are located in the school building at day’s end. Talk to your son or daughter about their family rules for texting via phone (when, how often) and also ask if they are on an unlimited plan or have to pay per text. Then, follow according to their rules. Text your grandchild on a Saturday morning while watching cartoons at the same time in separate states. Text a photo of a cute puppy you see while on a walk. Kids get a ping of feel-good dopamine whenever a positive text comes through. How nice that you’re the one who provided it!

Call them

Have a nice long chat. Listen to their silly stories. Listen to how the ball game went, the driver’s test, the prom. Share with them stories about your childhood. Though the era may be different, the way you felt about things emotionally at that time may be very similar. Your “Kick the Can” may be their “Flashlight Tag.” Your sixth grade heartbreak may feel exactly as theirs.

Invite them to visit

When your grandchildren are old enough for you to manage for an extended period of time, offer for them to come visit for a comfortable time frame. Joanna Horner’s oldest daughter said that she got to know her grandparents in a way she never would have by spending a week with them each summer. Put what you would normally do on hold and take the time to spend with them, doing the things they would enjoy.

Conversely, if you are invited to travel to your progeny’s home and stay for a while, consider staying at a nearby hotel with a pool instead. Take the kids for an afternoon and enjoy some one-on-one time. Also, don’t overstay your welcome if you are staying in their home; keep your visit short. No matter who the guest is and how much you love them, having someone stay in your home can be stressful. Be mindful of this.

In Laura Ingall’s day, a long distance move probably meant never seeing your loved ones again. “Back in the Big Woods so far away,” wrote Wilder, “Grandpa and Grandma and the aunts and uncles and cousins did not know where Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie were. And sitting there by the camp fire, no one knew what might have happened in the Big Woods. There was no way to find out.” Today’s world is much smaller. With the latest technology, it seems to get smaller all the time. Take advantage of these methods, or even the more traditional ones, and your loved ones won’t seem far away at all. In fact, they can be just a text message away.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Minnesota Good Age.