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Nurturing long-distance grandparent relationships

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I grew up with grandparents who lived in another state. Although New Jersey was not exactly the other side of the continent, our home in New York was a two-and-a-half-hour car ride, so visits had to be planned in advance. When my brother and I were toddlers, my parents took us almost every weekend for visits. Once we were teenagers, my retired grandparents usually made the trek due to harried schedules on our end.

At the time, I didn’t think of the relationship with my grandparents as a long-distance one. It was the only one I knew, and we all made it work. We shared birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. We also talked by phone regularly. I had friends whose grandparents lived up the street, but I never felt that the relationship they had with their grandparents was more special than mine.

According to an AARP Bulletin, “A little over four in 10 (43 percent) of grandparents have to travel over 200 miles to see their grandchildren who live furthest away from them.” The number one reason for grandparents not seeing their grandchildren enough was distance (67 percent). Yet, this same study indicated that most grandparents feel they play a very important role in the lives of their grandchildren. Therefore, it seems that many grandparents are finding creative ways to bridge the distance.

Are you concerned that an imminent location change might hamper relations between your kids and your parents? Perhaps your due date is just around the corner and your mom, who lives on the opposite coast, fears that your baby-to-be won’t really know her. No need to worry. There are plenty of ways to nurture long-distance grandparent relationships:

Why grandparents are special

According to KidsHealth (Nemours Foundation, kidshealth.org), “Establishing a bond with grandparents can benefit kids in many ways. Grandparents can be great role models and influences, and they can provide a sense of cultural heritage and family history. Grandparents provide their grandkids with love, have their best interests at heart, and can make them feel safe.”

“Parents have to make sure kids are doing the right things,” says Dr. Laura Markham, a parenting expert and author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” and “Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings” (TarcherPerigee). “When grandparents are not the permanent caregiver, they can be the child’s cheerleader without getting involved with everyday rules and expectations, such as doing homework and eating vegetables,” Markham adds.

Carla Sutter, master of social work, director of Franchise Operations at Synergy HomeCare Franchising, LLC (www.synergyhomecare.com), explains, “The grandparent relationship is that one extra-special bond that can really make a difference in a child’s life. Grandparents don’t have the same ego, because they’re not directly involved. If something goes wrong, they are not the ones who are viewed as messing things up.”

Sutter describes a moment when a parent might say, “You never let me go out wearing that!” “Grandparents are not as uptight about the little stuff,” explains Sutter. She also points out that a positive relationship with a grandparent translates to strong relationships with older adults in the community and an understanding and comfort with aging.

Grandparents are the link to family traditions. They also serve as historians. Grandparents are interesting, because to the grandkids, they lived so long ago, that their past is retro cool, so grandkids want to hear all about it. I used to love when my grandma would tell me stories about her childhood — especially when she’d regale me with secrets about her first crushes and sneaking out to go to a dance even though she was grounded.

The positives and negatives

“It depends on how often you see the child and which end of the continuum you are on,” Markham explains. “There are different challenges for all grandparents. For those far away, there is a huge challenge to maintain intimacy. On the other hand, a grandparent who provides regular care has to enforce the parents’ rules, even if a little TV or sugar is okay in her own mind.”

Sutter agrees. “There are positives and negatives to all relationships. If the role is to discipline and be a structure-maker, you might lose some of the ‘sparkle’ of that grandparent relationship. Instead of looking at long-distance relationships as a negative, find opportunities to engage with your grandchild in special ways to make sure the relationship is maintained.”

Staying connected

“Technology is key,” Sutter states. With Skype, FaceTime, and other apps, grandchildren can talk face-to-face with grandparents who live far away. However, many grandparents are not tech savvy. Parents and older children can serve as guides when it comes to making grandparents comfortable with technology, Sutter offers.

Markham describes creative ways to use technology for communication.

“Sometimes grandparents don’t know what to say to a child they don’t see often.” She advises asking the parents to suggest a book their child loves. Grandma can read the book to her grandchild online. “Kids need the visual. Sing songs to them such as ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ — something silly. Laughter is a great ice breaker.”

Another idea is to share mealtime. “Schedule your video call during a meal. Conversation is more natural during meal time when kids are comfortable and used to conversing.” Markham also recommends online games that grandparents and grandchildren can participate in together, such as chess or fantasy sports leagues.

Technology isn’t the only way that grandparents can nurture a long-distance relationship, however. It just takes a little effort and ingenuity.

“You don’t always want your connection to be about stuff. I’m a big believer in writing,” Sutter shares. “There’s something special about getting snail mail. Everyone’s lives are extremely busy, and many grandparents are still working. I like the idea of doing a postcard back-and-forth to share knowledge and experiences.”

Sutter suggests sending postcards with photos of animals or locations that might be very different from where grandchildren live. “Send these to your grandchildren with a line about the animal or place you’ve seen.” She says grandkids can make scrapbooks of the postcards. For young children, grandparents can ask Mom or Dad to send a postcard back with the grandchild’s drawing of something she saw.

Markham also advocates snail mail as an alternative way to stay connected.

“Grandparents can start a progressive story. They write the first paragraph. The grandchild responds with the second paragraph, and so on.” She also recommends sending cartoons and jokes back and forth via snail mail. Parents can fax or text photos and answers back. This is easier on busy parents with young children who can’t handle the correspondence on their own.

Markham proposes working on long-distance projects together as well. If a grandchild likes to sew, for instance, collaborate with her on a quilt project. Sew individual squares remotely. During a visit, sew the squares together to make a complete quilt.

Of course, whenever possible, schedule in-person visits.

“Plant a tree for your grandchild. Each time he visits, take his photo by the tree.” Markham reports that this is a great way to show a grandchild that he is special and to document his growth and maturation.

How the parents can help

Parents play an integral role in nurturing long-distance grandparent relationships. Sharing stories about their parents and revealing their own emotional connection helps kids learn the importance of staying connected with family.

Parents can help by preparing their children for visits with Grandma.

“Before the visit, you can use Skype to help the child warm up to the grandparent before they arrive,” Markham recommends. “After the visit, send along the photos you took. Parents can also laminate picture books for their children to flip through.”

Older kids love to be in charge. Markham reports, “Ask teens and older kids to print out the photos and make a book out of them.” Older kids are also great with photo apps and can make collages and post on Instagram.

Markham advises that one-on-one time with a grandparent is extremely important, and parents should encourage it. She says this helps to develop a unique bond.

“Parents are a key factor. However, grandparents should try not to burden the parents with the responsibi­lity,” warns Sutter. Instead, she suggests that grandparents encourage simple ways to respond to gifts and messages. For instance, if a grandparent sends a gift, instead of expecting the parent to help their young child write a thank you note, you can ask them to snap a photo of the child with the gift.

Many parents have the additional challenge of having local grandparents on one side of the family and long-distance grandparents on the other. In this case, Sutter proposes setting up special time to reconnect with the grandparents your children haven’t visibly seen. “At the holidays, for instance, ask the long-distance grandparents to arrive ahead of time to rekindle the relationship before everyone else arrives.”

Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist, and feature writer. Her work has appeared in publications across the U.S. as well as internationally (www.myrnahaskell.com). She is also co-founder and managing editor of Sanctuary (www.sanctuary-magazine.com).

Special circumstance: When grandparents reside in a nursing home or assisted-care facility

As an expert in the eldercare industry, Carla Sutter suggests some preparation for children before visiting grandparents in a nursing home:

Bridge item: Give the grandchild something they can “hand” to Grandma, such as a drawing or painting he made. This helps to break the ice but can also serve as an alternative to a hug that the child might not be comfortable with in this unusual environment.

Use books to educate: Show pictures to the grandkids ahead of time. A nursing facility will have lots of residents in wheelchairs, hooked up to oxygen, etc. Prepare them visually for what Grandpa will look like, so it is not a surprise.

Don’t use euphemisms: Be aware of the language you use. Don’t say, “Nana got a bad cold.” This will confuse kids. Kids are often more resilient than we realize and should be told the truth.

Understand your own feelings: Keep in mind that you will also be affected by the visit. A parent’s misgivings and fears will translate to the children — keep them in check.

Posted 12:00 am, November 25, 2018
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