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Modern technology allows grandparents to stay in touch with families

September 09, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Lois Gilbert of Hagersotwn stays in touch with her seven grandchildren via her laptop and Skype Internet voice and video service. Gilbert says Skype "is the best thing. You feel like you're right there, talking with them, seeing them. It's just wonderful and a lot of fun."
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

At least once a week, David Harmon reads a bedtime story to his grandson, Ethan.

One night, it might be the 3-year-old's favorite, "Peter Rabbit," the next it could be "Good Night Moon."

That they are separated by an ocean doesn't seem to faze either person.

While grandfather reads, grandson laughs and asks questions.

It's all possible thanks to modern technology.

The two have become fluent in Skype — a software application that allows users to make voice and video calls over the Internet.

Harmon lives in Hagerstown, Ethan lives in England — but a little thing like distance doesn't keep them apart.

"I'm afraid that we'd be strangers if it wasn't for the computer," Harmon said. "It's the next best thing to being there."

There was a time when grandparents lived next door — sometimes in the same house.

Today, millions of American families are scattered around the world.

But that doesn't mean that grandparents have to be relegated to a token role in their grandchildren's live.

"The bond can develop," Harmon said. "It just becomes a bit more challenging."

Harmon said he feels it's important for families to relish intergenerational relationships. That's why he works hard at staying in touch with his grandson, who was born and lives thousands of miles away.

Nearly half of American grandparents live more than 200 miles from at least one of their grandchildren, according to an AARP study, which also found that about two-thirds of grandchildren see one set of grandparents only a few times a year.

But many long-distance grandparents are finding creative ways to stay in touch, the study noted —  including emails and using Skype.

Dara Bergel Bourassa, assistant professor at Shippensburg University and director of the school's gerontology program, said you can't underestimate the importance of maintaining intergenerational relationships, regardless of how many miles separate you.

"Grandparents have always been an important aspect of support for the family," she said. "Grandparents provide the adult children and grandchildren with the opportunity to learn from their personal history."

Bourassa recently wrote about the importance of fostering relationships between grandparents and grandchildren in an article published in Psikologji, an Albanian psychology magazine.

"One of the joys of grandparenting is seeing the life cycle continue," she said. "It is extremely interesting to see the grandchildren's personalities and physical characteristics develop. And one of the delights of grandparenting is that they often have the time to spend with their grandchildren, generally due to retirement."

But along with the pleasures of grandparenting, there also are challenges, she said.

"One obstacle is that grandparents are living farther away from their grandchildren. This lack of proximity may make it difficult to foster a strong connection," she said.

But with air travel and the Internet, it has become easier to develop those bonding experiences, she said.

Modern technology has kept Lois Gilbert (no relation to this writer) up to date with the lives of her seven grandchildren, who live in all parts of the United States — from Hagerstown to California.

While she travels to visit her children and grandchildren, she also stays in touch via the telephone and computer.

"I just sent an email to my granddaughter in Colorado and within a half hour I heard from her," said Gilbert, who lives in Hagerstown.

Gilbert said it sometimes can be difficult being a long-distance grandparent — but not impossible.

There has to be ongoing communication, interaction and creativity, she said.

This past summer, for instance, Gilbert issued a challenge to several of her grandchildren who lived in Seattle and Colorado.

"I told them I would give them $1 for each book they read," she said. "They had to keep track of the books, the number of pages and what they liked about the story.  Then, at the end of summer, I would send them money. One grandchild read 17 books — so I was out $17."

It's the kind of bonding experience she thinks is important to have, especially because they live so far apart.

"When I was growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, one set of grandparents lived 12 miles away and the other 30 miles away," she said.

She remembers spending Sundays with grandparents and cousins.

Now that she's a grandparent, it's a different world, she said, with families unable to be together as much as they would like.

"I have grandchildren that range in age from 28 to 3 1/2. But I stay in touch, and, even though they lead such busy lives, they stay in touch with their grandmother," she said. "I visit with them during the summer and over holidays.  We talk on the phone about school, jobs, internships. And I get lots of photos. The mother of my 3 1/2-year-old grandchild takes photos and makes them into postcards. I have them all over the house."

And, like Harmon, Gilbert said she Skypes.

"It's the best thing. You feel like you're right there, talking with them, seeing them. It's just wonderful and a lot of fun."

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