Ask the Experts: Help Needed for Grandparent Connection During COVID 19

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on October 21, 2020, by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine 

Question:  My parents live nearby but we have not seen them much in the previous months because of COVID and my dad having significant risk factors. We have had a few outdoor, socially-distant gatherings but with winter coming, that will be hard. I know my parents are upset not seeing the kids as much. My mom told me recently she feels like she is depressed. I feel guilty. Do you have ideas to keep the connection strong in a safe way?

Answer: I wish I had an easy answer. This is a dilemma that has impacted so many, in so many ways. Before giving any thoughts on the subject, I remind everyone to follow CDC guidelines for mask-wearing (yes, around the grandparents), social distancing (six or more feet apart) and handwashing and using hand sanitizer often. As the cold weather approaches and the time when families gather for the holidays, we must be extra vigilant. Recent surges across the country have been attributed to people gathering again in the home and being more relaxed about the virus.

We all have to get creative. My family has had to get creative for this same reason. Our visits are shorter and may get even shorter as the cold and darkness descend on us. We visit in the outdoors around a fire pit for about 2 hours once a week. Our chairs are six feet apart. Parents are in charge of watching if the little ones get too close to grandparents, and gently reminding grandparents when they don’t resist the impulse to snuggle and hug. My family has also driven to a park to meet at a halfway point to see other dear ones who live miles away. We try to be outside as much as possible. Taking walks, visiting a garden, and reading stories all can be outside activities, and soon sledding and snowman-making will be in the mix. 

The cold weather season may mean rethinking cold-weather gear, just to be able to spend more time together. Dressing in layers can extend the time together.

It is difficult for your mom. Isolation and loneliness can really contribute to feelings of depression. The dark months of winter can be a problem under normal circumstances for many people, especially older adults. When the separation caused by the pandemic is added to the mix, it can become very serious for some. Your children are a major joy for her. If there are ways you can help her remain engaged, it will help her mood. Throughout the fall and winter, try to ramp up the engagement and involvement with the grandparents in any safe activity. If you notice increasing depression, substance abuse and/or overall withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed in your mom or other older adults for whom you care, help them get connected to their physician for an exam. The requirements of the pandemic are not your fault, don’t take on guilt. Just do the best you can under extraordinary circumstances. Allow time for your mom to talk and recognize the feelings she is expressing. She will feel better just being heard.

Here are some helpful ideas and suggestions for you and your children:

  • Video chats with guessing games, jokes, and stories both from her and from your children can keep them connected.  
  • Letter writing is a way of connecting, as well as sending hand-drawn pictures back and forth. I know one grandmother that draws a bird and sends it to her grandson, then they learn about the bird together. The next time, the grandson draws a bird and sends it off to his grandmother.
  • Holiday fun: Have an outdoor family Halloween parade. Grandparents can dress up too and provide some warm cider and cookies. Looking at the neighborhood lights together during the Christmas and Hanukkah season can be done together using separate cars and speakerphones so everyone enjoys the experience of it together. It’s all about memory-making, pandemic or not!
  • Another holiday idea is to have grandparents watching the assembling of gingerbread houses. Having an activity going on allows children to become comfortable with the online presence of their grandparents.
  • There are easy recipes online that you can use to make handmade ornaments of the kids’ handprints.
  • Grandparents can be online watching the assembly of a craft they furnished.
  • Car picnics or visits with cars parked side-by-side—windows open with heat ramped up!  
  • Grandparents can get a kick out of watching a little one get absorbed in a storybook being read by a parent. Be sure to set the screen so that expressions can be seen. 
  • Daily short video chats can become a normal part of life. Each child has a different attention span so enjoy brief chats more often.
  • If grandparents are close, have the child participate in baking and dropping off cookies.
  • In the same vein, grandparents can assist parents by cooking one meal and dropping it off.  
  • A daily chess match or crossword puzzle between grandparents and older children can be fun. Using Zoom, they can play Pictionary, Scattergories, Mad Libs, and other games.  
  • Send your parents pictures as often as possible. This keeps them aware of what the kids are doing and communicates to them that you are thinking about them. It is a bit more costly, but if possible, give a gift of a digital picture frame that shuffles through multiple pictures which you load on. This way they can see your children going about their daily lives. Very fun!
  • If it is in their nature, ask the grandparent to sing a bedtime lullaby to a smaller child. Sometimes there are special good night songs in families.

We all are eagerly awaiting normal times. We are learning a lot about how important connection can be. I wish you the best in helping your parents during this time.

Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine.

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