Technology allows grandparents face time with grandkids

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By Brian Goslow

Every couple of days, Tanna McTee, 46, a Reno, Nevada-based Realtor, receives a simple text message from her son on her Android Sidekick mobile phone: “Skype.”

The message is a signal that it’s time for one of her favorite times of the week: face time with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Sage, through Skype.

Upon the message’s receipt, McTee turns on her computer and in moments, Sage is on her screen — and the 2,500 plus mile distance between Nevada and her granddaughter’s home in Charlotte, N.C., where she lives with her parents, Tim and Amber McTee, melts away.

Thanks to modern technological innovations such as Skype (a free software program that allows people to make face-to-face and voice phone calls over the Internet), text messaging and social media sites like Facebook, grandparents no longer have to wait weeks and months to see and hear their precious loved ones.

Parents can, like Tim McTee does, plop their child in front of a camera on their computer — many have them built in — where the grandparent can watch them. Most times, Taara doesn’t even talk to her son. “He holds Sage in his lap as I talk to her to keep her focused,” she said.

“We do silly dances together. She watches me dance, then copies me while we’re talking. When we end, we hug our sides. We call that a hug.” Sage’s parents “hate” the dance because like all kids do once they learn something, she does it around the house repeatedly but her grandmother said, “She likes it because it’s silly. She says, ‘Granny T does the Happy Dance.’ ”

Today’s technology allows distant family members to share moments they would otherwise miss. “Sometimes Sage’s parents post pictures on Facebook of her swimming, playing with her friends or at a wedding,” McTee said. “Sometimes they’re just going for a walk and she’ll do something funny. They record it and send me videos of that.”

McTee tries to visit her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter two or three times a year and she also talks with them the old-fashioned way: by phone. “We just spoke yesterday,” she said. “I always say I can’t imagine being a grandparent before the Internet. Before that, it was waiting for a picture to come in the mail, if it came at all.”

For all the changes that have gone on in the world since baby boomers were kids, AARP family relationships expert Amy Goyer said technology is the thing that has most changed the grandparent-
ing experience.

“Baby boomers are much more likely to be communicating with their grandchildren using technology, playing online games with them, being their Facebook friend, sending text messages,” Goyer said. Sixty percent of baby boomer grandparents are consumers of social media; that includes Facebook, Twitter, blogs, chat rooms and online communities. “Their grandparents were certainly not doing that sort of thing,” she said.

Almost all grandchildren under the age of 20 have grown up using cell phones as their primary means of communication — and they’re more apt to use those phones for text messaging than voice-to-voice communication. If you want to be in touch with them, send them a text message, Goyer advises.

“If grandparents don’t adapt to the way their grandkids are communicating, they just don’t communicate with them,” she said. “They won’t hear anything from them.”

Long phone calls? Mostly a thing of the past.

A letter with a picture or two in the mail? A rarity.

Videos from their big game or play at school? Check their YouTube video link on their Facebook page.

“The best thing grandparents can really do is to focus on what their grandchild is into,” Goyer said. “Most grandchildren are going to be text messaging, using websites or web cameras.”

Goyer said most new Apple products, such as the iPad tablet or iPhone, have FaceTime automatically built into the item — which works similar to Skype. “It’s so incredibly easy (to use),” she said. If the grandparents are less familiar with using the technology, their children can help them by calling up the program on their electronic devices so they can see their nieces and nephews via iPhone or Skype.

When it was first created, Facebook was intended to help college students connect with other students on their campus; when it was expanded to cover the general public, it became the favorite program for teenagers to communicate. More recently, the baby boomer generation and some of their parents have been flocking to the site. “There’s a group on Facebook that a gal started called, ‘I can’t believe my grandparents are on Facebook,’ ” Goyer said. “It’s cute.”

She said most teenagers she’s spoken to aren’t put off by the idea of having their grandparents frequenting the same social network websites as they do. “They think it’s somewhat amusing” and like that their grandparents can keep up with what they’re doing, she said. However, there’s one element of observing your grandchild’s day-to-day goings-on that Goyer warns about:

“I tell grandparents, if your grandchild agrees to be your friend on Facebook or any other social media site, you have to know you might see things that you don’t like too much — and you’ll have to keep it to yourself,” she said. “If they’ve gone on a trip or they’re talking about school, those kind of things, that’s great. But grandparents may also see their college age grandchild partying and they might not be too happy about it, but they have to know that that comes along with (the access).”

Heather Meeker, communications expert for textPlus, a company that creates real-time online and smart phone applications and provides free text messaging for teenagers through advertising-supported applications, said baby boomers are really stepping up to adopting these new technologies.

“The boomer grandparents are embracing the technologies their grandchildren use and like,” Meeker said. “The kids aren’t changing their behavior. They’re doing what’s natural to them; they’re texting, that’s what they like to do. They’re not going to sit there and send an email, which is probably the preferred form of communication for a baby boomer. A letter might be a stretch.”

The message is clear: If a grandparent wants to get in touch with a grandchild, send a text message. Then stand-by. Since many kids, for all intents and purposes, live online, a response will probably arrive before the grandparent moves onto the next chore of the day.

“A text is in the moment,” Meeker said. “It’s easy, quick, instant and not so labor intensive as a phone call.” And, more often than not, any inquiry as to what they’re doing will be answered with a photo. In the first 10 months textPlus was available, over 350 million photographs were sent through the service.

For Rose LeBeau, 51, of Auburn, Mass., the first time she thought about being a grandmother was 17 years ago when she and her husband, Bill, bought their house.

“When we overturned all the soil to put in a new lawn, it was filled with broken glass and oversized rocks. I said, ‘Bill, someday we’re going to have grandchildren running around here barefoot and we’ve got to prepare for this and pull everyone one of these things out of the ground.’ ”

Having that observation become a reality has been an amazing experience, “They really do run — or crawl — around on the grass barefoot and you’ve got to watch out for them,” said LeBeau. Much of what the grandchildren Calvin, 2, and Jack, six months, do has been carefully documented and shared on Facebook with LeBeau by her daughter, Chelsea LeBeau Hueter, and son-in-law, Adam, who live an hour away in Westford, Mass.

“I usually check Facebook everyday to see if they’ve got any new posts,” LeBeau said. “They don’t always contact me directly; they might just post it so everyone can see.”

Among her recent surprises: a video of Calvin performing Itsy Bitsy Spider with a rap music twist. “I don’t know how that happened; he must have seen it somewhere,” LeBeau said. “He’s been singing it the traditional way, and then all of a sudden he starts breaking out into a rap. It was pretty cute.”

LeBeau said her family doesn’t use the U.S. Postal Service anymore; even birthday cards are hand-delivered. “It’s a matter of convenience,” she said.

Since she’s an artist (she recently retired from teaching to spend more time with her grandkids), LeBeau’s children got used to their mother trying to photograph every special — and not so special — moment of their lives. She said when it comes to putting images up on the Internet, there’s no way to know who will see it, so people have to be careful about what they’re potentially sharing with strangers. “I’m pretty protective of the images and my children and their feelings about it,” LeBeau said. She noted that when she was a kid, no one thought twice if a child was being photographed for a local newspaper, but now, not all parents are comfortable about having their child’s likeness on public view.

Amid all the technology, LeBeau said, it’s important not to forget good old hands-on sharing of experiences.

“Where you can, go to their school events and activities and share their world,” she said. “Make time for that. You can’t get that by showing up once a month or going to a birthday party. You have to hang out with them and get down on the floor and play.”