Not too long ago, extended families usually lived in the same hometown, perhaps on the same block, and it was a regular occurrence for family, friends and neighbors to drop in unannounced for coffee or a spontaneous dinner. Perhaps one, maybe two relatives moved away to another state. Now, according to the AARP, 66 percent of all grandparents live more than a day's drive away from their adult children and their grandchildren. Space has stretched between families, with many states and even oceans between loved ones, and today's grandparent doesn't get to hug the little ones (and not-so-little ones) every day like their predecessors.
"Distance can put a strain on the grandparent's relationships with family members," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of "Little Things Mean A Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren." "Or it can purr along as if the grandparent lived close by."
All that's needed to keep in touch with your kids and grandkids is a plan -- and a few lessons in using your computer and cell phone. "One of the things my grandchildren like is that they taught me how to text on my phone so we can keep in touch about school, sports and odds and ends," says Karen Wood, 61, from Lititz, Pa. "The grandchildren also love to help me out when I can't figure something out on the phone." Today's technologically savvy preteens and teens love knowing they can show off their smarts and skills to Grandma and Grandpa, and they also get a boost from knowing their grandparents want to learn a challenging new skill because they really want to stay in touch. The children feel valued.
You have many options when it comes to your methods of keeping in touch:
*Regular phone calls. On the simplest end of the technology spectrum is the telephone, and more grandparents have asked their adult children to join them in weekly catch-up phone calls. "Keep the lines of communication open between you and your own children, because they are the gateway to your grandchildren and also your source of up-to-date information on a grandchild's successes and interests," Newman says. And of course, it's important to connect with your children, the grandkids' parents, because their successes and interests are also important to you. Group harmony is established.
*Cell phone calls. Many kids have cell phones of their own. Ask for their individual cell numbers so that you can place calls directly to them. Grandkids feel special when you intend to connect with them specifically rather than wait in line to say hello during the one family catch-up call.
*Send text messages. Arrange with your kids and grandkids to share a no-limit texting plan. Some text plans charge per message, and those add up quickly! Have your grandkids teach you how to compose and send texts, including how to take a photo with your phone and send it to them. Grandparents on vacation can send a snapshot while on safari or of a celebrity sighting and send it right to the child with a quick message. Non-keyboard phones can make spelling out messages difficult, so perhaps it's time to upgrade to a phone that does feature a regular keyboard.
*Join social networking sites. Millions of people are connecting and catching up on Facebook and Twitter every day, and seniors are a quickly growing demographic, joining the "conversation" and connecting with their loved ones in new and fun ways. Perhaps you'll play your grandchild in a game of "Scrabble" or "Scramble" on Facebook, something that grandparents who live locally to their grandkids might never think to do. You could find yourselves playing once a week or more! Facebook and Twitter allow you to share photos and videos of your interests and explore your kids' and grandkids' posted interests and triumphs. You might not have known you both love the same reality show or sitcom. Now you know, and now you have more to chat about on the phone and during visits.
*Skype them. Skype is a free application that enables you to make calls over the Internet. And the best part is that they are video chats. Through the built-in cameras most computers sold today have, you can see the person with whom you are speaking. This is the perfect way for grandparents who live across the country or on a different continent to watch their grandchildren grow up. You no longer need to rely on the yearly school portrait. While you chat, you can watch your grandchildren grow up before your very eyes. Skype also has free instant messages, file transfers and photo transfers. With Skype, you never have to miss your grandchild's first steps.