Grandparents get creative to see family during social distancing

Technology keeps older residents in contact with loved ones during coronavirus pandemic

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Debra Tyler-Horton has a standing date at 3 p.m. on Sundays.

She’s sheltering in place at her home in Powder Springs and has penciled in this time as family time.

The video chatting app Zoom brings Tyler-Horton face to face with 10 members of her close-knit family, including her 94-year-old mother in New York and four grandchildren in the Carolinas.

The grandkids, who range in age from 6 to 13, “do more talking than anybody else,” she said.

“We talk about what they’re doing, and what they’re not doing. Usually, one of the parents is in the background saying: ‘Can you come get one of them, Grandma?’ ”

During the coronavirus pandemic, families are figuring out how to stay connected with children, grandchildren, parents and siblings who they’d love to — but can’t safely — see up close because of fear they’ll catch or pass on the virus.

Many, such as Tyler-Horton, AARP Georgia state director, are spending time with loved ones on their phones or computers through an array of chatting apps — and consider that the next best thing to being there.

Lenbrook, a large senior living community in Buckhead, began taking special steps to help residents connect with their families March 17, when restrictions were put in place on outside visitors. All but two or three out of the 50-plus residents were interested in participating, said Shondrella Little, the facility’s enrichment manager.

Now, each morning, Little goes room to room with an iPad, ready to connect residents to family members through FaceTime or Duo, the Google video chatting app.

“For the most part, it’s been going over without a hitch,” Little said.

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Some residents initially had to adjust to seeing themselves and their family members on a small screen.

“But when they realize who they are talking to, it’s awesome,” Little said. “They tend to tear up a little bit, and everybody’s happy.”

Grandparents and family aren’t just bridging the distance gap to chat. They’re also getting creative, using the time they connect with their grandchildren to sing, read books, draw and play games. Some are even hosting virtual potluck dinners and birthday parties.

Retired educators Patricia “Pat” and Lem Patterson of Savannah played Charades on Zoom on a recent Sunday afternoon with family members scattered across six households.

The couple has 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren in communities in four states, including Atlanta.

The Pattersons are making sure their school-age grandkids keep up with their school assignments.

“As a retired English teacher and literary consultant, I’m able to supplement their lessons,” said Pat Patterson, who is hoping for real face-to-face time, big hugs and kisses on Labor Day, when a family reunion is planned.

Emily Semien's husband, Leonard, enjoys a socially-distant visit with his daughter and grandchildren.

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In southwest Atlanta, when schools first announced a temporary shutdown, Emily Semien started driving the roughly 5 miles to her daughter’s house to lend a hand with her four grandchildren – a 9-year-old, 7-year-old and 5-year-old twins.

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Once Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decreed residents should shelter in place, Semien planted herself at home and started talking with the grandkids a few times a day using FaceTime.

“If I go 24 hours without seeing them, I get kind of antsy,” said Semien, a retired IRS administrator.

These days, she multitasks on her daily walks through her neighborhood. Her phone is in videotaping mode, and she’s recording insects and animals along her route to share with the grandkids and talk about later.

On a recent April morning, Semien was trying to capture on tape “an elusive chipmunk” in its travels.

In east Cobb, Ron Feinberg and his wife know they can expect to hear from their 6-year-old granddaughter about noon each day on Zoom.

She often has a book in hand and will spend 15 minutes, sharing her ever-improving reading skills with grandma and grandpa.

“It’s a nice way we can interact with her,” Feinberg, a former Sunday editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said. “She’s really proud of herself, and we’re really proud of her.”

Before the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing, the Feinbergs saw their granddaughter and 3½-year-old grandson several days a week.

“We are very close and used to seeing them a lot,” he said. “We’re sort of in withdrawal right now.”

Because as great as technology is, Feinberg said: “It’s one thing to talk to them, and it’s another thing to hug them and have them sitting right next to us.”

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When it comes to connecting with the kids, Save the Children and other organizations suggest a few ground rules.

Be honest with the grandchildren about the virus and the increased risk of it spreading when people are together.

Be reassuring. Let the grandchildren know the family will be together again once the virus is no longer a major health threat.

Validate the grandchildren’s feelings. Let them know it’s OK if they miss being together. Let them know those feelings are understandable and reciprocated; you miss them and normal contact as well.

Listen to what they’re saying. Be aware if their stress levels are increasing or if they are sensing that your nerves are wearing thin.


Call, chat, snapchat, text and message on Facebook, especially if that fits your technology comfort level or was the prior routine. But also consider using one of several video chatting apps for that face-to-face contact you’re missing. (Check out the details to see what apps might meet your needs and if any fees apply.)

Zoom: While geared toward businesses, this app can be used by families, too, for free and can involve as many as 100 participants.

Skype: This well-known app can be used on computers, mobile devices smartwatches and even Xbox One and will accommodate groups of up to 50 people worldwide.

Google Duo: A simple app that allows eight people to connect in video calls on smartphones, computers, tablets and Smart Displays.

Instagram: Six people can video chat at once.

WhatsApp: This works on Android and iOS platforms. The free app allows groups of four users per session.

FaceTime: This app allows video and audio calls to groups of up to 32 people. It is available on Apple products, including iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

Facebook Live: This allows viewers to connect in real-time using their cellphones, computers and television sets.

Facebook Messenger: Up to six people or groups can video call for free around the world. It's available using cellphones, tablets and computers.

Tango: This free app only connects two people.

Snapchat: This is a full service and free video chat service. But it can chew up a lot of data time.

Google Hangouts: This app is free in its basic form and allows up to 10 participants at a time. Video chatting is possible through a Gmail account.