Life & Culture

Virtual Grandparenting: Three Views

When the nationwide advice to stay at home to stop-the-spread of coronavirus was issued in mid-March, an estimated 70 million U.S. grandparents faced the most emotionally wrenching part of stopping the spread: keeping your distance from the grandkids. Older adults, more vulnerable to a severe infection if they got COVID-19, can’t visit their grandchildren.

At least, not physically.

Barbara’s Story

Before the pandemic, Barbara J. Kelly already had a visiting routine set up with her granddaughter, B. Her granddaughter, just over a year old, lives just 10 miles away with Barbara’s son and daughter-in-law. Every Tuesday after work, Barbara would stop by for one-on-one time.

As director of external relations at Senior Planet, Barbara is very comfortable with technology. So she’s taken some routines that she and B. had before lockdown, and transitioned them to technology. Example: The nursery rhyme “Clap hands, clap hands till Daddy comes home” plays well over the phone, too.  “Facetime has been a lifesaver, it’s my [new] Tuesday afternoon.”

“Sometimes my son will call and just leave the phone near her so I can watch her,” Barbara says. “It could be for a half hour. The last time he did it she was outside on the deck, touching all the flowers, and trying to eat the flowers.”

They have a shared family album on the phone. When a new photo comes over, Barbara looks immediately. 

Her advice: “Get into some type of routine, whether a certain time of day, a dinner call, a before-their-bath call.” That way, you look forward and the parents can plan their day. That doesn’t rule out ”emergencies,” when Barbara lets her son and daughter-in-law know she needs a quick technology fix ASAP.

Tom’s Story

Barbara’s husband, Tom Kelly, also had a regular routine set up with his nearly two year old granddaughter, E., who lives just 25 miles away with his son and daughter-in-law. He would babysit once or twice a week.

Barbara calls Tom a “Luddite,” and he doesn’t disagree. “I have an old clunker of a computer. I had a flip phone a year ago. I’m late to the dance.” But it’s far from hopeless. He had already mastered Facetime before lockdown, so that continues. During babysitting, he’s a get down on the floor and play type, so that continues during Facetime play sessions. “They just got her a kitchen set. So we were on Facetime and my granddaughter starts cooking me some pancakes and pizza.” She’s used to him being a happy participant in her games, so ”when she sees me on the phone, she runs from play station to play station.”

His advice: “When you are stumped, don’t give up, seek help. Being patient [with technology] is a blessing.” And if you have a computer or phone glitch,  ”I always say, ‘Did you try POPO?” Power on, power off.”

My story:

My granddaughter, C. was just 7 months when this started, and living just 9 miles away with my son and daughter-in-law. I was enjoying reading to her, babysitting and making faces in front of the mirror with her. Saying “Look! It’s CeCe and Mimi!” always made her smile.

As the pandemic has stabilized a bit, we have transitioned to part technology, part social distance visits. Still, FaceTime is a lifesaver. My standard FaceTime greeting–  “Cece! It’s Mimi!”–brings an immediate smile to both of us. We also do the shared album on the phone, not just for still photos but videos of milestones—so far, I have videos of her army crawl and her ”cruising.”

We did a Zoom party with family in Arizona who haven’t yet met her in real life, and she was the star of the show. (Zoom is currently free if under 40 minutes.)

My advice: Respectful of how busy life is with a now-9-month old, I request Facetime a day or so before.

At the start of the lockdown, I worried she would forget my face. Thank God that hasn’t happened. But I still can’t wait to hold her again and make faces in the mirror with her, in real life.

Want to be a virtual grandparent, too? Check in regularly with Senior Planet’s listings of online classes here to see when the next online class is available to learn how to visit virtually. Other online classes are also available – for free – on mobile banking, exercise classes, talks or lectures. For more tips on staying connected, see “How to Support Older People During the Pandemic: 3 tips”

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash


Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based health and lifestyle journalist who writes for a variety of websites. She’s the person at the party who will listen with interest about your medical condition and view your scar. She is an ecstatic new Mimi and also enjoys hiking, jogging, socializing and buying baby clothes.
Photo: Gary Binder


6 responses to “Virtual Grandparenting: Three Views

  1. My roommate is still babysitting her grandkids in person. She says she’s careful and wears a mask, but I’m fearful since I’m in the vulnerable, over-65 group. Are my fears justified? What can I do?

  2. I’m Barbara’s mom and B’s great grandma about every two weeks my grandson sends me 20 to 25 pictures of what they are doing. B is a funny, smart girl and she makes me laugh. I live in Florida so the last time I held her was Thanksgiving. Visiting via FaceTime let’s me see how she’s growing, each new tooth and if I’m feeling blue from this pandemic, I look at her pictures and videos and I cheer up. It’s truly a blessing.

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