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Grandparents Boost Their Video Chat Skills to Connect With Grandchildren

New ways to engage and use technology to strengthen relationships

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Tami Kelley admits she's not technology savvy, but she didn't want her lack of digital skills to interfere with her connection to her 5-year-old grandson, Horatio.

Because Kelley, 58, lives in Cincinnati and Horatio lives in Vergennes, Vermont, the pandemic is keeping them apart more than usual and video chatting now plays an important role in their relationship. But to successfully connect, Kelley had to fight through a computer video system that quit working, a cellphone that refused to connect to FaceTime and the challenge of making those video chats feel engaging to Horatio.

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The coronavirus pandemic has separated many families celebrating Grandparents Day on Sept. 13. That separation means technologies like Zoom and FaceTime are the way many grandparents and grandchildren interact. But sometimes those exchanges can feel awkward, or there's dead air, or grandparents struggle with digital tools.

"I'm technologically illiterate,” says Kelley, a retired kindergarten teacher. But with some help from her daughter, Kelley and husband Dave, 54, are now able to connect daily with their favorite kindergartner. It was worth the headache. “This is our special time,” she says.

For Kelley's daughter Miranda Peters, those video chats are also important. Peters and her husband are often called into virtual meetings at the same time while they work from home. The grandparents’ video calls have become an essential form of virtual babysitting.

Find ways to overcome technophobia

Many grandparents — like lots of people — find video calling intimidating. A 2014 study in the Journal of the International Society for Gerontechnology found that 24 percent of older respondents reported being afraid to use new devices. For those who aren't overwhelmed by the technology, figuring out how to keep a child's attention can be challenging.

That's why Shelby Hoefling, a wellness coach and yoga teacher based in Falls Church, Virginia, wrote the children's book Grandma's in the Phone about getting the most out of video chat apps. The book was inspired by Hoefling's calls with her 95-year-old grandmother, Patricia Hoefling, who lives in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.

"I definitely consider her to be my best friend,” Hoefling says. When Hoefling moved far away a few years ago, she taught her grandmother to use FaceTime.

It took a fair amount of coaching, but with positive feedback and tutorials, the two were able to video chat daily. Hoefling wanted to help other grandchildren and grandparents achieve the same experience.

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Grandma's in the Phone is a sweet story about how young Mac and his grandma Patty stay in touch. But it also offers suggestions for making FaceTime or Zoom successful. Those include making sure the camera is pointed at Grandma's face (and not the ceiling fan) and finding activities, like baking cookies, to do together virtually.

Making Zoom meaningful

For Horatio, those activities meant interactive conversations with the Kelleys. “He wanted tours of our house, to see his bedroom,” says Tami. But soon, the couple realized that to keep his attention long enough for his parents to get some work done, they'd need to switch up the routine.

"We played Candyland,” Dave says. With Horatio's iPad pointed at the game board, the boy would move the pieces for all three.

Patty and Bill Bundy, both 70, of Smith Mountain, Virginia, have found similar game-based success with their three grandchildren, Hampton, 9, and William, 7, who live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Grace, 4, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

"At first I sent my older two microscopes,” says Patty, a marriage and family therapist. They could all discuss the slides of bugs and critters the children were viewing under the eyepiece.

But the real win, says Bill, a retired investment banker, was when the couple started mailing their grandkids puzzles. “Whenever Grace would get a piece and fit it in, we'd all clap and be proud,” he says.

The key with all of their grandchildren, but especially the older two, the Bundys say, was to avoid asking vague questions. “I was not going to sit here and say, ‘Now what did you do today?’ No kid wants to sit through that,” Patty says. Instead, finding specific topics, like Hampton's room remodel or the sports stations William sets up outside and then shows off via video, keep the conversation moving.

The Bundys admit they're lucky to have older grandkids who are digitally savvy. “We let them initiate the calls,” Patty says. But the grandparents have pushed themselves to become comfortable with the various videoconference apps because, Patty says, it's worth the effort to learn them so calls go smoothly.

Without video chatting, “we would have spent six months here with what?” she asks. “Getting a postcard every now and then?"

Bill says the ability to see his grandchildren and communicate on video has helped ease the separation caused by the pandemic. “Things like hugging them and being there with them, you miss those kinds of things, but this has made it tolerable,” he says.

For grandparents like the Bundys, the challenges of using video tools don't outweigh the joy of that connection with their grandchildren. “If there's a downside,” Patty says, “it's hanging up.”

Video Chat Tips and Tricks for Grandparents:

  • If you struggle with using video chat technology, AARP has many resources, including videos and step-by-step instructions on how to use FaceTime and Zoom.
  • Find interactive activities that you can do with your grandchildren by video chat, like baking cookies, playing board games or reading books together.
  • Make conversations specific instead of vague. Ask your grandchildren’s parents for hints about what the children have been up to to make discussions more meaningful.

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