En español | Gloria Warnicki's family room is set up to entertain her grandchildren. Until recently, they spent endless weekends at her Darien, Illinois, home, mostly in this room full of toys, art supplies and coloring books.
But the room has been still since stay-at-home orders were enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus. No weekend sleepovers with “Gigi,” the name her 10 grandchildren call her. No more trips to the ice cream parlor or Barnes & Noble. Instead, they see each other over Zoom video chat, or wave from the car.
"I miss feeling them, holding those little hands,” says Warnicki, 72, an office administrator whose four grown children live in the greater Chicago area, close enough for Warnicki to play an active role in their lives. Until lately.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily lives of Americans, and for many of the country's 70 million grandparents, contact with young grandchildren has been cut off. Older Americans have a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19, and children may be asymptomatic carriers. So intimate relationships have been frozen in time, leaving grandparents longing for a connection they once took for granted.
"Grandparents are these enormously important attachment figures,” says psychiatrist Alan Schlechter, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. Though families worry the separation could weaken the bond between grandparent and grandchild, Schlechter does not see a significant risk. “Children are not going to forget loving grandparents,” he says. “That's not the way human brains work."
The bond may be lasting, but childhood is not. Children grow quickly, and an older grandparent may see the clock ticking. “If you're in your 60s, late 70s, and say, ‘When am I going to see my grandchildren again?,’ that's a legitimate question,” says Adi Loebl, a family and geriatric psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City.
Warnicki, who has hypertension, is worried about the health risk her grandchildren pose to her and her 92-year-old mother, a cancer survivor with hypertension, who is staying with her. So Warnicki sees her grandchildren over Zoom. Her 7-year-old grandson, Sebastian, plays his drums, guitar and keyboard for her over the internet. The videos help, but they're no substitute for babysitting him after school every Friday. “We used to do puzzles and games. We used to spin Beyblades [a toy],” she says. “He misses that kind of closeness.”
To keep her grandchildren engaged, she calls them daily, asking pointed questions about their friends and schoolwork. “I don't want them to lose that feeling of wanting to be with me and wanting to spend time with me,” she says.
Occasionally, Warnicki drives by her children's homes to visit from the driveway. Once, she wore a coat backward, creating a barrier to give her granddaughter a hug. “You want to cry. You just don't realize how important that is,” Warnicki says. “My granddaughter, she didn't want to let go, and when she did let go, she stood back and she was crying and I was crying.”
Medical experts see such outdoor encounters as relatively safe. Small children “are short, so they're at your knees. A quick hug. What can you do?” says geriatrician Caroline Blaum, director of the Division of Geriatric Medicine at NYU Langone Health, who suggests washing hands after the embrace.
For grandparents who live far from their grandchildren, the start of summer has meant canceling family gatherings. Barbara Mitcho, 70, a retired school nurse in Glassboro, New Jersey, doubts her three oldest grandchildren will be able to visit for a week as they usually do. And she recently canceled a summer vacation rental on the Jersey Shore, where she and her husband, Carmen Mitcho, 72, had planned to gather with their two sons and their families.
But Mitcho's relationship with her 6-year-old granddaughter in North Carolina, Mary Wynn, has taken an unexpected turn. Mary now contacts her grandmother daily over Messenger Kids, a communications app. “She called me at 7 in the morning and she said, ‘Do you want to help me pick out what I'm going to wear today?'” Mitcho says.
The calls can't replace a visit, but “this is new — the fact that she feels comfortable to do that with me,” Mitcho says. “I do look forward to the calls."