March 30, 2020 -- When Polly Connell found out her grandchildren's Boston schools were closing over concern about the growing number of COVID-19 cases, her reaction was instant and well, grandmotherly.
"I'll just come," Connell told her son, John. She was ready to make the 200-mile drive to Boston immediately to watch her two grandkids there. But her son, in what she says is the first instance of role reversal, shut her down quickly.
"He said, 'No, you're not, you're not coming, Mom,''' she remembers. Concerned about her health, Connell's son reminded her that Boston was densely populated and at risk for more COVID-19 cases than her home in Underhill Center, VT, with about 3,000 people.
As the ''social distancing'' messages grew along with case numbers, and public health experts cautioned that older adults and those with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable, Connell, 71, got it. "I'm not going to anyone's house," she says. She and her husband, John, know that trips to see any of their four grandchildren are out of the question right now.
Like Connell, legions of grandparents across the country are dealing with being ''grounded." In some cases, grandparents make the decision; in others, adult children do. At the end of a recent White House press briefing, Deborah Birx, MD, response coordinator for the Coronavirus Task Force, said with a sigh that she hadn't seen her own grandchildren in weeks.
The decision to stay away reinforces the message that infectious disease exerts like Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonologist and internist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, tells his patients who are grandparents. For now, he says, staying apart is best. "If the number of cases go down, we will reevaluate," Horovitz says.
Staying apart, however, does not mean staying unconnected. Grandparents and grandchildren have turned to technology and other means to keep relationships strong.
Polly Connell found a book that had been left behind at her house -- "Harry, the Dirty Dog" -- and used FaceTime to read the story of the dog who hates baths to her 20-month old granddaughter in Vermont, with her daughter's help. "It's hard to hold a phone and a book and read upside down, "Connell says. "The second time, I had my laptop, and did FaceTime on my laptop.''
It's not the same as in-person bedtime stories, she says, ''but it fills a void. It's frustrating because, those little ones, you want to hold them."
Grocery Drop-offs, With a Concert
Once the pandemic hit, Erika Whitemore of Half Moon Bay, CA, and her husband, Dan, along with their two daughters, Lilli and Elena, also decided they would resort to FaceTime with her parents, who are in their 60s and live just 7 miles away.
Then, an errand to drop off groceries for her parents turned into something more. When Erika and her daughter Lilli, 10, got to her parents' house, she let them know she was leaving the groceries on the step, then backed off to keep a distance. Her parents, Tim and Lupa Iverson, came out, gloved and with wipes, to pick up the supplies, and her dad left ''sanitized" money for her next to a flower pot out front.
As they were ready to leave, Lilli, who had brought her ukulele, decided to play at a distance for her grandfather as he stood outside. "He went inside and grabbed his guitar," Erika says of her dad. "They played a little back and forth, some Tom Petty, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’"
Grandparents as Tutors
Lee Martinez, 71, and her husband Oscar, 65, of Falls Church, VA, are used to driving to Harper's Ferry, about an hour away, to get together with their two grandsons, a teen and a preteen, for visits and to watch their sports. "My husband says he wants to see those boys, see them grow up, see them achieve success," she says.
Now, the rituals have changed. The teen grandson sends his completed Spanish homework on instant message, ''and then we talk on the phone" to review it, Lee says. "My dad was a diplomat, and so I grew up speaking Spanish."
Some habits of the ''text over talk'' generation have changed, too. "The younger one isn’t a big talker," Lee says. But ''he called last week just to talk to us, which I thought was sweet."
New Takes on Holidays, Birthdays
Dealing with the uncertainty of how long the stay-at-home orders will last can be frustrating, especially with spring holidays and birthdays coming up, says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, senior psychologist at Northwell Health in Lake Success, NY. "People often do feel cut off," she says. Easter and Passover celebrations are typically multi-generational, she says, and grandparents she counsels know they may not happen, at least in the traditional form, this year.
"We've talked about Zoom Easter dinners or Zoom Seders to feel more connected," Warner-Cohen says. Zoom is an online video conferencing tool.
"I've heard of grandparents whose kids play in the front yard and they watch,” Warner-Cohen says. “I've suggested having the kids create projects," and show them off to their grandparents over technology.
On Saturday, Lacey Rohr and her husband, Sean Abate, along with their two children, Harper, 4, and Weston, 2, affixed a giant, multicolored banner on the side of the family car: "Happy 94th." They joined 11 other grandchildren, forming a car caravan with banners and balloons and drove by the nearby house of Lacey's grandfather, Eric, in Burbank, CA. "He was sure proud having all his 12 grandchildren show up with a surprise car parade to celebrate him," Rohr says.
Even a phone conversation isn't possible for all grandparents. Paty Cowden, 63, who lives near Charleston, S.C., about an hour's drive from her daughter and two grandkids, just finished her 28th and final radiation treatment for cancer of the larynx and can barely speak above a whisper. "I'm hoping my voice will return soon so we can at least FaceTime," she says in an email. So she focuses for now on what they will do once life goes back to normal. "My daughter and I both love to cook," she says. "We are going to plan a weekend with just the four of us and just love on each other. She's the best cook in the world and I haven’t eaten solid food in a month."