Susan Hodara stared at the latest photo of her granddaughter, Eden, a round-faced, dark-eyed beauty of a baby. More than 1,700 miles stretched between them; with Hodara living in New York, and little Eden, who just turned 1, growing up in Denver. Just that morning, Ariel, Hodara’s daughter, had texted that the baby was unwell, and she wished her mother were there to help.

“I’d love to be able to do that,” Hodara says. “And I thought, ‘I’m just going to go online, look at flights and see how much they are.’ But it’s not just the flights. I’d have to get to LaGuardia airport. Travel will take the whole day and I’m going to be tired. Traveling is getting worse and worse and more and more expensive. This is the constant dilemma.”

She had already booked tickets to Denver for the holidays. Ultimately, Hodara stayed put, knowing she’d be FaceTiming with Ariel and Eden the next day. The family has frequent video visits, and Ariel, an avid photographer, sends a steady stream of photos and videos, documenting both the everyday and Eden’s firsts — first smile, laugh, crawl and more. By the next day, the baby was better. But Hodara couldn’t help wishing she was closer.

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Long-distance grandparenting is a challenge. And it’s common: More than half of grandparents in the US have at least one grandchild who lives more than 200 miles away, according to AARP’s 2019 Grandparents Today study. (For comparison, in 1999 AARP found that just 26% of grandparents only had grandkids who lived more than an hour away, while 34% only had grandkids within an hour’s drive and 39% had a mix of grandkids near and far.) With such spread out families, experts and grandparents alike have brainstormed ways to help support the connection between generations. And while it takes commitment, it is very possible.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that many grandparents think they can’t have a close relationship with their grandchildren because they live at a distance,” says Amy Goyer, AARP’s national family and caregiving expert.

Technology, Goyer says, has improved ways to connect dramatically. And there are tricks to making those virtual visits more effective. But before getting into practical tips on holding a 2-year-old's attention on a video chat, it’s important to step back and look at the bigger picture, because the challenges that long-distance grandparents face are emotional as well as logistical.

Kerry Byrne, a research scientist and founder of The Long-Distance Grandparent, a membership organization and resource center, refers to coping with the psychological barriers as “Minding the Gap.” GAP is an acronym for Grief, Acceptance and Perseverance.

Having a long-distance grandchild is a particular kind of loss. Grandparents worry that they won’t know their grandchildren and their grandchildren won’t know them. Many had preconceived notions of what the relationship would look like: plenty of cuddles — and knowing all too well how quickly little ones change — along with being present for their milestones.

“I call it grandparent grief,” says Byrne, adding that before working with long-distance grandparents, she hadn’t expected the heartache to be so intense. “I hear from grandparents all the time who are struggling with this idea of knowing they want to support their adult children but feeling robbed of the relationship they looked forward to.”

Angi Penney is a New York grandmother with her granddaughters Bianca, 5, and Celine, 2, growing up in Portland, Oregon. Penney’s daughter Alex took a job across the country with Nike and built her life there.

“She can’t get a job at that level and with this quality of life back here,” Penney acknowledged. And she supports her daughter’s choice. Still, Penney had to work through her grief, and stop begging Alex to come home.

Angie and her husband Paul see the girls four or five times a year and have FaceTime chats with them five times a week. They connect in all sorts of ways, and the girls know them and love them. But Penney still sounds wistful. “It’s missing the everyday, missing those special moments that happen,” she said.

Having a long-distance grandchild is a particular kind of loss.

When the other set of grandparents lives near the grandkids, the longing can feel worse. Witnessing a stream of social media posts of other grandparents attending dance recitals, soccer meets or birthday parties is sometimes painful. Even seeing friends enjoying their nearby grandchildren can be difficult.

Which brings us to Byrne’s second recommendation: acceptance. You can stew about the situation until your grandchildren are adults, not to mention guilt trip your adult children, but it won’t change the situation. (Except possibly to alienate your own kids.) As Penney puts it, “We all have a choice and we acclimate to our children’s needs, period.”

Another point to consider — gratitude for simply being a grandparent. Many older adults will never enjoy this experience for a variety of reasons. To them, long-distance grandparenting may look great.

Finally, there is perseverance. Long-distance grandparents must navigate a number of barriers – beginning with financial ones. Grandparents like Hodara include visits as a priority in their budget. When grandchildren live in another country, grandparents must negotiate even more expensive travel, as well as time and language barriers.

It’s on grandparents to make the effort to stay connected in a world where so many parents are overworked and frazzled. And that means making parents partners in making the relationship work.

“The most important person in the grandparent-grandchild relationship is the parent, because the parent is the one who facilitates, especially when the grandchildren are younger,” says Goyer.

How does all this work on a practical level? What about that 2-year-old who wanders off the video chat or the school-age kid who is tired after school (not to mention after years of pandemic distance learning) and doesn’t want to come to a screen? Or the teenager who doesn’t even want to talk to his parents, let alone his grandparents?

Clearly, there are many ways to connect, among them real life visits, emails, video chats, phone calls, texts and snail mail. But there are ways to make communication more effective.

How to Stay Connected to Long-Distance Grandkids

Plan ahead. Schedule calls at a time that works best for everyone. Maybe a video call to read a bedtime story to a young child is perfect. But that could also be the precise time of day when a child is tired and cranky, when the daily routine is at its most overwhelming for parents or a time when parents don’t want their child distracted or excited by screen time. Work with parents.

Listen actively to the grandchild. That 2-year-old whirling dervish may be pretending to be a superhero. If you pay attention, you can engage her by asking, “Who are you going to save today?” Ditto with the names of school friends, teachers, pets and favorite colors. (Take notes if you must.) Lasting the Distance notes follow-up questions are key to active listening, but anything that shows your interest in their lives will work.

Plan the visit, virtual or otherwise. Another misconception about long-distance grandparenting is that you cannot play together. Craft projects, progressive storytelling and all sorts of activities can be done without actually sitting on the floor together. Bryne works with a grandfather who plays Barbie virtually with his granddaughter. He has his own doll. There are apps for many games familiar to grandparents: Monopoly, Uno, dominoes, and far more (see Adventures in Nanaland for some good suggestions for games that can be played on video chat.) Grandparents can also learn new, interactive video games.

If a grandchild has a particular interest, let them teach you. One kid who is interested in art may want to give an art lesson, while another learning a musical instrument might want to share how to play scales. Be open to them.

Be attentive to age-appropriate activities. A grandparent might read to a young child, have an older child practice reading to them, and form a book club (Harry Potter will keep you going) with a still older child. Goyer says that during the pandemic, many grandparents began virtual tutoring with their grandkids. Don’t hang on to activities that children have outgrown.

Watch the time. “When I talk to my grandma, it takes an hour,” one teen complained. Not surprisingly, this teen, who did not want to give her name, avoids picking up her cell when she sees her grandmother calling.

Don’t take it personally. Sometimes a kid is just not in the mood. Maybe their dad just refused to give them a second cookie before dinner. It’s not about you. Regroup and try another time.

Share calendars. If you know what’s happening in a grandchild’s life, it’s easier to stay connected. “How did your dance recital go?” or “Tell me about the camping trip!” is bound to produce a better conversation than, “So, how was school today?”

Snail mail. Byrne calls this “the super-powerhouse of long-distance grandparents.” Why? “You can almost guarantee that you are the only mail arriving at their door.” Grandparents can be creative with snail mail, too, perhaps sending supplies for craft projects for an upcoming virtual visit, or a treasure map for a virtual search.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, remember this: A strong bond between grandparents and grandchildren is mutually beneficial. Certainly, the more caring adults a child has in his or her life, the better. Kerry Byrne points to research that shows a positive relationship with a grandparent has been linked with lower rates of anxiety and depression in older grandchildren as well as less ageist views. And Amy Goyer points to AARP research revealing the social, emotional and physical benefits to grandparents of being connected.