Social Distancing Doesn’t Mean Social Isolation: Here’s How to Maintain Connection
By Lynnae W. Allred and Marilee Woodfield
Last week, when our adult children started joking about laying in an emergency supply of Diet Coke, marshmallow creme, and salt and vinegar chips ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mood was light. A day later, local university classes and church worship services were suspended statewide. On Friday the 13th, the Governor enacted a “soft close” for all public schools. By the following Monday, we began receiving videos of our preschool-aged granddaughters running laps around the house. They were already going stir-crazy.
As the grandparent generation, we are supposed to have enough experience dealing with uncertainty to be able to maintain a sense of steadiness and reassure the younger generation that all will be well.
Then, on Wednesday, we had a 5.7 magnitude earthquake; the first time I had ever felt a quake at all, much less one that was strong enough to shake me awake. If we weren’t rattled before, we were now. Now the text messages took on a more strained tone. Grandkids were bedded down under the kitchen table with pillows, blankets, and iPads. Photos from my children showed lines at the gas pumps and empty shelves at the grocery store. Next, I received word from a sister that my aging father had taken a fall and my mother needed additional caregiving assistance. Recently returned from vacation out-of-state, I was already under a self-imposed self-isolation, and for the first time, I wondered whether we had it in us to weather this storm.
The Unintended Consequences of Social Distancing
As the grandparent generation, we are supposed to have enough experience dealing with uncertainty to be able to maintain a sense of steadiness and reassure the younger generation that all will be well. But that’s hard to do when we are feeling jittery ourselves, and worse, when we are advised, for our own safety, to avoid contact with potential “carriers,” meaning, just about anyone, including our closest family members. Social distancing is supposed to be keeping us “elderly” folks safe, but it’s also killing us with anxiety. The worry about how our children and grandchildren are doing, coupled with our own sense of social isolation, is more distressing than wondering what is happening to our stock portfolios and our jobs. How do I maintain family ties and my own sanity while simultaneously fighting to maintain my own health and safety without putting anyone else’s at risk?
The worry about how our children and grandchildren are doing, coupled with our own sense of social isolation, is more distressing than wondering what is happening to our stock portfolios and our jobs.
Is Technology Part of the Solution?
One answer is the same one businesses and schools are using: Remote video conferencing. This week alone, I’ve become my grandchildren’s emergency substitute teacher, my aging parents’ activity director, and my children’s’ cooking instructor–all via video calls, and it feels oddly reassuring. For those who live far away from family, access to video conferencing tools is giving us new connections to the younger generation. We don’t need to be disconnected generationally or emotionally during this period of social distancing. By understanding and using this technology, we can maintain and cultivate face-to-face conversations, even with loved ones who live in a different time zone.
A Video Conference Playdate
On the afternoon of our unexpected earthquake, I set up a video call with my granddaughters so that we could “play” together now that the shaking was over. Little did we know that a strong aftershock would interrupt our oasis of calm. I watched with alarm as my son, unnerved by yet another tremor, gathered his daughters into his arms to move them to a safe spot. Moments later, my own desk started shaking as well as the aftershock traveled outward to my location which was further away from the epicenter of the quake. We were 50 miles apart watching the panic in each others’ expressions and trying to remain calm for the sake of the children.
If you are the grandmother listening to her daughter fretting about her business being destroyed overnight, or the grandfather not able to make contact with an aging parent in a long-term-care facility, listening to me talk about my own family’s worries is probably not particularly helpful. But I’m sharing this heavy story in order to help give you a sense of how reassuring it was to be on a second, hourlong video chat with my 5-year-old granddaughter the day after the earthquake. We played together via video conference while I “helped” her tear strips of paper and create a decoupage birdhouse craft. Her mother took a much-needed nap and her father continued his workday in a makeshift remote office in another room. While she cut and pasted, she made up a story about earthquakes, which I typed out as she dictated it:
“Earthquakes are kind of fun for me. I like earthquakes because they wiggle and jiggle a lot and I get to go under the table and watch Frozen 2 sometimes…Aftershocks of earthquakes are kind of tiny. I had an earthquake a few days ago. It was my first earthquake. And I have a lost tooth when the earthquake happened. I can sip water through the gap.”
If you are struggling to find normalcy, and feel disconnected from your social network during the Covid-19 craziness, try a video call. Even, better, try a video call that allows you to “play.” Play a game, play an instrument, do a craft together, tell a story. I encourage people who want to play remotely to use the largest screen they have access to. Instead of a smartphone, try using a laptop or even a laptop connected to a TV. During coming weeks, you’ll have more time to improve your technical skills and explore app and software options, but for a Quick Start Guide, try one of these solutions:
Level 1: A smartphone and a simple tripod.
There are literally dozens of smartphone video chat apps available, so chances are you are already using one that works well for you. FaceTime, Google Duo, and Facebook Messenger are three of the most popular. For connecting with grandchildren, the most important piece of equipment might be a stand or tripod, and yours doesn’t need to be expensive. This keeps the image still and leaves your hands free for play dough or puppets.
Level 2: Free Video Conferencing Software
By now, your school-aged grandchildren may already have been introduced to a video conferencing software they are using to keep up with remote classes or assignments during school closures. If so, you could simply duplicate whatever they are already using.
I often use Zoom with my grandchildren because I like the option of recording our conversations–especially if we are sharing family stories. I prefer using a laptop for these calls. The larger screen is easier on my eyes and allows me to tilt the screen to show my work surface if we are playing a game or doing an activity. Additionally, it allows me to connect simultaneously with multiple children or grandchildren in different locations. An iPad also works well.
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Video conferencing companies are making herculean efforts to absorb the dramatic increase in traffic demand due to remote school and business needs, so don’t plan on a lot of human tech support. Instead, choose a reputable, free software that is easy to install and intuitive to run. Online tutorials are available to help you get set up if you get stuck. Zoom is almost idiot-proof and can be set up and running in minutes.
Level 3: Video Conferencing Devices
While these can be a bit expensive and initial setup can be tedious or time-consuming for some brands, these larger-screen devices are going to become more and more common–especially for grandparents. One reason is simply the size of the screen, although the ability to use voice commands rather than figuring out software or a complicated remote will also make them more popular for seniors. Facebook Portal, Amazon Echo Show, and Google Nest Hub are three examples of products you may want to compare. For example, Facebook Portal allows you to video chat via Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but it also plays your favorite music on Spotify or Pandora. When not in use, it becomes a digital photo frame that displays your favorite family photos.
Finding Hope, Creating Connection
The birdhouse craft project I started with my granddaughter the day after our earthquake didn’t turn out quite like I would have expected. If I’d been there in person, I might have been tempted to help her smooth out the corners, cut the hole opening more precisely, or make sure her torn-paper pieces covered the entire surface. But what I discovered was that she didn’t need me to do any of that. All she needed was a quiet time to cut and paste, reassured that she was capable, but that I was close by to listen. All I needed was a quiet time to explain how to cut and paste, reassured that she was safe and we were, both of us, less afraid about tomorrow.
Marilee Woodfield has an MS in Family Studies and is a 34-year early childhood education veteran. She has authored 21 teacher resource books and is the grandmother of two.
Lynnae W. Allred
Lynnae W. Allred is co-founder of playdatebox.com, a website focused on play experiences for grandparents who want to connect with grandchildren, regardless of distance. She has focused her research on family connection and play throughout her 32-year career as a full-time mother and business owner. She is a grandmother of six.