Kathy Koehler had worked out plans to meet her first grandchild. Their daughter, who was expecting a baby last March, lived in London and Ms. Koehler intended to fly there from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
She had collected a small supply of blankets, toys, and clothes to put in her suitcase and reserved a bed and breakfast near her daughter’s home for April.
“I would be there every day and help and get to know this little guy,” said Ms. Koehler, who is 63 years old. “I could not wait for it.”
Of course, this trip never took place. Her daughter also didn’t make a scheduled visit home in October to introduce her new son, Elya, to the rest of the family. Covid-19 intervened.
Ms. Koehler hoped that she could at least celebrate her grandson’s first birthday in person. Friends scoffed at her pessimism and assured her that by then international travel would surely be resumed. But Elya turns 1 on March 13th and his maternal grandmother has to hold or kiss him.
“It feels like a double loss,” she said. “I’m wasting time with this newborn that I’ll never get back. And I didn’t see my daughter and son-in-law fall in love with him and become parents. I felt so betrayed. “
The forced separations of the pandemic have caused great concern for grandparents. Whether they live an ocean apart or around the corner, many have had to cancel visits, forego holiday gatherings, and forego the ordinary joys of story reading and gaming. Although distancing protects grandparents’ physical health and safety because elders are at higher risk, it has been a painful time.
And it’s not quite behind us. The introduction of the vaccine could lead to a flurry of happy reunions in the coming weeks. New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that fully vaccinated grandparents can now safely visit grandchildren.
However, in many states, the elderly are still looking for appointments, and the CDC has maintained its warnings about travel. Ms. Koehler, who has not yet qualified for a vaccination in Michigan, will be watching Elya’s birthday party through Zoom.
Long before the pandemic, researchers knew that many older adults were experiencing social isolation. In frequently cited studies, around a quarter said they felt isolated and more than 40 percent felt lonely. This can affect both mental and physical health. For many people, the pandemic increased this sense of separation.
However, the inability to spend time with grandchildren brings a special type of loss with it. Children change faster than our other relatives. As Ms. Koehler pointed out, missing time with babies means that they have gone through phases and phases that we will only experience on video screens. Even the grandparents could not take part in the milestones of many older children last year – dance evenings, football games, school leaving certificates. Some special occasions did not take place at all.
Nor could they help their afflicted children in the way many wished, as they were exposed to unusual economic and other pressures, often without childcare or personal schooling.
Kerry Byrne, founder of The Long Distance Grandparent, a company that helps build connections between generations, heard from distressed grandparents year round. After a long separation, “they worry that the grandchildren don’t know you or that you don’t know them,” she said. “They fear that they will not be able to maintain these bonds.”
Risa Nye, 69, an Oakland writer, was able to see her four grandchildren in the Bay Area, but in some cases only outdoors. But what about the two of them in Syracuse, NY?
Prepandemic, Ms. Nye and her husband would fly east or their daughter and family would come west several times a year. Sometimes they vacationed together on the Jersey Shore or in Southern California near Disneyland.
Now she wonders if Madeleine (13) and Ezra (7) will remember eating blue pancakes at the Rise N Shine Diner or seeing “Wonder Woman” together. “It has been more than a year,” said Ms. Nye. “The older one is a teenager. I’m missing out. “
“That was devastating,” agreed her daughter Caitlin Nye, 43. Her parents indicated that she would visit, “and it is very difficult to tell your mother,” There is no logistical way to do this safely and without great fear. “An educator who is very aware of the viral risks, she told her mother.
Grandparents’ grief – a term used by Emma Payne, founder of a company called Grief Coach – has another dimension: Older people realize that time with their families is becoming increasingly scarce. The median age to become grandparents in the United States is 50, but many grandparents are older or have health problems.
A year apart can be worse for a 75-year-old who is more of her remaining life span than it is for her 35-year-old son or 35-year-old.
Marilee Reinertson Torres, 61, has five grandchildren within a half-hour drive of her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In April last year, she greeted the youngest, Salma Elaine, in front of the window of the hospital where she had just been born. Although Ms. Torres was able to see her grandchildren outdoors in the summer and hold the newcomer, these visits stopped in the November cold.
Because she is undergoing chemotherapy every three weeks and looking for recurrences of cervical cancer, Ms. Torres is more aware of mortality than other people. “I saw Salma when she was born. Can i see her go to school? I want to see what my 10 year old is like as an adult. “She asks if she will.
Child development experts are reassuring in one way: family ties can survive this disruption.
“Grandparents shouldn’t worry that they won’t play an important role in their grandchildren’s lives in the future,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
“Children are resilient and very adaptable,” he said. “When a child is introduced back to grandparents after a year, they still have a very important place in that child’s life.”
However, maintaining these connections, especially with children who didn’t know their grandparents well prior to Covid-19, is a chore.
Ms. Koehler is skyped every day with Elya and his mother. “He absolutely knows my face,” she said. She and her husband show him their dog and cats and play together where your nose is. “It feels like a real relationship is emerging,” said Ms. Koehler, who is also in Maine Skypes with a second grandchild.
Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University, zooms in with her own little grandchildren every night. “If there are ways to see a face or hear a voice, it can be very helpful in maintaining relationships,” she said.
“A willingness to be silly and playful is important,” added Ms. Byrne. Oh i know
I haven’t been separated from my granddaughter, now 4; You, your parents, and I formed a pandemic capsule. We mask and distance ourselves from everyone else, but not from each other.
Since I’m lucky enough to be their childcare worker one day a week, we don’t have to use FaceTime often. But when we do I pull out the hand puppets and it has been known to get cheap laughs by banging an annoying horse puppet on the head with a banana.
But no matter how hard all parties worked to keep in touch, many grandparents suffered deeply this year. Resumed visits – the real kind in person – cannot come too early.
“Grief” is not a very strong word for those grandparents who year-round long for a little hand, a hug without fear.