Photo by O.C. Gonzalez on Unsplash

Reaping the many rewards that come with close relationships between grandparents and grandkids

The bond between a grandparent and grandchild is a special one, but what happens when they live thousands of miles apart? How can close connections be maintained from afar? With the help of technology, of course.

Kathleen Huculak, an 83-year-old grandmother based in Edmonton, learned to use a computer to be closer to her grandchildren following her daughter’s move to England for four years. “It was hard to continue a close relationship with two young grandchildren,” Huculak says. “That is what inspired me to learn how to use a computer.

“We’d Skype weekly, and I kept up with whatever they were doing through their Facebook posts. I don’t think I would ever have learned to use that technology if it wasn’t for my grandkids. I believe they helped me to keep feeling younger and able to see them grow up to become great adults.” Huculak continues to use Skype and FaceTime to stay in touch with her grandkids, who now live in Ottawa and Calgary, between visits. Technology makes keeping in touch easier.

Staying connected – regardless of how that is done – is important for both grandparent and grandchild. A growing body of research reveals that the benefits of those relationships are far-reaching, including greater happiness and longer life expectancy.

Data backs up the belief that nurturing ties with the younger generation is healthy for mind and body.

A 19-year longitudinal study by Boston College found that emotional closeness led to a reduction in depression for both grandparents and grandkids. This finding suggests that strong family bonds are an important factor with distinct benefits as people live longer.
It turns out that when Grandma or Grandpa babysits, there are substantial rewards.

Research out of Australia has determined that nanas who spent time watching their grandkids did better on cognitive tests and were more mentally sharp than non-babysitters. Some data suggests a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Supporting that finding is the Berlin Aging Study, a database of adults aged 70 and older living in the former West Berlin. It determined that caregiving duties resulted in a 37 percent reduction in mortality risk.

Health boosts for caregiving grandparents

The next step is to conduct further research to figure out exactly why that’s the case. Some physicians believe that grandparents do better when they stay physically active, socially engaged and cognitively stimulated. Those all happen to be key factors in determining how well we age. However, studies suggest one caveat about grandparents babysitting: it should be done in moderation to avoid becoming overstressed, which detracts from wellness.

Lois Johnston, a 74-year-old retired nurse from Windsor, Ontario, finds joy and inspiration as a grandmother to eight grandchildren (ranging in age from 12 to 21). “There’s nothing like being a grandparent,” she says. “My life would be emptier without my grandkids. They are a reflection of what’s good about your own children.”

As someone who appreciates the importance of education, Johnston was always keen to share what she knows with her four children. Now, as a grandmother, she enjoys teaching her grandkids. She likes to share her skills, from showing them how to sew to mastering the art of baking.

Sometimes being a grandparent means just listening without judgment – something her own nana did.

“I could tell her anything and she would always keep my secrets,” Johnston recalls. “I try to be like that with my kids and grandkids. I also learn a lot from them, too. They’re like a mirror in which you can see the good and bad of who you are.”

Passing down family stories and building a sense of belonging are also invaluable. Grandparents can help greatly by sharing their wisdom on everything from dating to sibling rivalry, as well as serving as role models. They can also be the calm in the midst of the storm, blessed by having a bit more perspective on difficult problems than parents, who may be too close to the situation. In a crisis, it’s often grandparents who remain the constant, providing kids with needed stability.

Read to me, Grandma!

While nothing beats the physical presence of a grandparent in their grandchildren’s lives, the new technology can make them forget they’re not in the same room. They might not be able to kiss their grandkids goodnight, but they can – and will – read them a bedtime story. For example, the app Kindoma Storytime allows calls to be focused on an activity to keep young minds entertained. Grandparents can read stories aloud and engage in photo sharing and games. Storytime’s approach has been so successful that the average call length has risen from three minutes to about 20. Now you can ask Grandma to read that bedtime story when Mom is too busy to do so!

Storybird is another option for sharing virtual quality time across the generations. It allows users to collaborate on writing customized stories using artists’ illustrations and their own imaginations. Once finished, your story can be purchased, then downloaded or printed as a soft- or hardcover book. Games can help shrink the distance between grandparent and grandchild as well. Tech-savvy users can tap into their creativity and play Minecraft, a super-popular video game, together.

No matter whether you’re connecting with the grandchildren face to face or with the help of technology, it is paramount to keep this relationship going. As grandma Johnston says, “Grandchildren are so full of energy. It’s nice to be able to absorb some of it. They keep you on your toes!”

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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.