Long-distance grandparenting takes connection, creativity to work — Part I

When my husband and I moved to Louisville in 1980, my parents became the first long-distance grandparents in our family – years before Skype, Facetime, and YouTube.
Without the technology to connect instantly to their grandchildren, my parents relied on expensive long-distance phone calls and visits once or twice a year (also not cheap) to stay in touch. They never complained, but now I know what a price they paid.
We moved to Louisville because my husband was offered a great job. At that time, our decision to leave home was a big deal; most of our friends and family thought we were crazy. Kentucky?
Over the years, as society has become more mobile, adults have increasingly chosen to make their homes in cities far from their parents. They seek job opportunities higher salaries, career advancement.
This, of course, means that grandparents must add “distance” to their lists of 21st century challenges – right up there with intermarriage and changing family values. It’s one more hurdle to overcome when building lasting, loving relationships with the grandchildren.
It isn’t easy.
A 2012 MetLife survey of grandparents found long-distance relationships with grandkids to be the new normal; 80 percent of the grandparents surveyed had at least one grandchild living more than 50 miles away, while 39 percent had at least one grandchild more than 500 miles away.
Not surprisingly, the distance affects how often grandparents visit their grandchildren. Grandparents whose kids live close by may see their grandchildren at least once a week (or daily), while most grandparents whose grandchildren are 500 or more miles away are lucky to see them once a year!
Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. Psychologists have studied the factors that contribute to the development of loving, lasting relationships (attachment). Two factors at the top of the list are one-on-one time alone with a grandchild and frequent contact, which, of course, become more difficult when distance separates grandparents from their grandchildren.
Psychologists have also determined that attachments form very early in life, which means that grandparents must find new ways to create that bond before their grandchildren are ready for elementary school. Many do, because it’s so important to them.
The keys to success are attitude and creativity. As one grandmother told me, “You play the hand you’re dealt; I keep telling myself that lots of grandparents have to deal with worse situations.”
That’s the attitude part. As for creativity, another grandparent I know creates photo books every time she sees her grandchildren and mails them to the kids with a funny note. Children remember those kinds of experiences.
Here’s the payoff: Studies suggest that grandparents who build strong, loving bonds with grandchildren when the children young are more likely to maintain those relationships throughout life. That’s worth a lot to grandparents. Believe me, I know.
Lots of grandparents overcome the challenges presented by distance by making sure they spend time with their children in meaningful ways that foster bonds that last a lifetime. In part 2 of Long-Distance Grandparenting, I’ll introduce you to some of these grandparents and share their secrets for successful long-distance grandparenting. It can be done.
But I need to hear from you, too. If you’re a long-distance grandparent, share your experiences with me at grandparentsblog@jewishlouisville.org. What worked? What didn’t? What advice do you have for other long-distance grandparents?
In the meantime, stay in touch with your grandchildren and stay tuned for more about the strategies for successful 21st century grandparenting.

(Editor’s note: Ruth Greenberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, a free-lance writer and a grandmother, begins a blog exclusive to Community on the changing face of grandparenting.)

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