Distance Grandparenting in the COVID-19 Era

America’s grandparents have been coping with distance grandparenting for years.

According to AARP’s 2018 Grandparents Today National Survey, over half of America’s grandparents have at least one grandchild who lives more than 200 miles away, and about one third live more than 50 miles from their closest grandchild. For these grandparents, distance creates a barrier to being with their grandchildren for daily activities such as school plays, ball games, and babysitting. It also means that things like a spontaneous visit or Sunday family dinner just don’t happen.

Distance grandparents learn to adjust to the barriers created by distance—they have to if they want to spend quality time with their grandchildren. They juggle schedules to facilitate travel to wherever their grandchildren live, and, if they’re lucky, their children will reciprocate and travel to visit them. These distance grandparents also rely heavily upon technology to stay close to their grandchildren. FaceTime, Skype, and now ZOOM are great tools for visiting with grandchildren when distance creates a challenge.

However, COVID-19 has created additional challenges for America’s distance grandparents, in particular the travel restrictions brought on by shelter-in-place requirements and the health risks associated with being over 60 years old. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to many distance grandparents about how they’re coping with not knowing how long it will be before they can schedule a visit with their grandchildren. Some are coping better than others.

The age of the grandchildren seems to play a role in how well distance grandparents cope. Grandparents whose grandchildren are teens or college students seem to be coping well. After all, they’ve been distance grandparents for many years. They also bonded with their grandchildren and adjusted to using technology and smart phones to stay connected.

And adding ZOOM to their tool kit has made distance grandparenting more do-able. COVID-19 may have dashed their plans to travel to be with family for Easter or Passover, but ZOOM made it possible to sit around a virtual dinner table to celebrate with family. Not the same, but next year should be better!

On the other hand, distance grandparents who have younger grandchildren have a tougher time coping with COVID-19 realities. My friend Gail lives in Florida for seven month and in New York City the rest of the year, where she sees her toddler and infant grandchildren constantly.When she’s in Florida, she sees her young grandchildren about every eight weeks; saying good-bye at the airport is bitter sweet, but she flies off knowing she’ll see everyone again soon.Not anymore.About five weeks ago, COVID-19 robbed her of the opportunity to participate in the birth of her newest grandchild. She was devastated.She and her husband missed a once-in-a-lifetime family event that no amount of FaceTiming or Zooming can replace. They must now wait to meet Naomi-Alice until travel to New York is safe.

My friend Esther, whose four grandsons range from infant to middle school, responded to my first COVID-19 post this way: “My whole being is hurting. Even though my grandchildren live so far, we have always made a point of seeing them every other month since they were born. I haven’t seen them since January. My youngest is 7 months old; he now flips over, crawls, and can eat with a spoon. Yes, I can watch on FaceTime, but I can’t hug him so he can feel my emotions and share how proud we feel. I will never get those moments back.”

These grandparents are dealing with a painful sense of loss, made more frustrating because they can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. As Gail put it, “We’re missing all of the little changes that we thought we’d share together with the family.”

As America begins to take the first steps toward re-opening, let’s take time to comfort grandparents who are struggling. And when America does open enough so that every grandparent can give their grandchildren a huge hug, let’s appreciate every opportunity we have to touch our grandchildren’s lives.

Stay safe, stay healthy,


P.S. If you've got a story to share about your coronavirus grandparenting experiences, please email me at rgreenberg@louisville.edu and I'll respond.

About Me

Hi, I'm Ruth Greenberg, a retired medical school administrator and writer. I became a grandmother in 2000 when my daughter gave birth to her first son, so I consider myself among the first 21st century grandparents!

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