Retirees, Get Tech Savvy for the Grandkids

Communicating through new tech tools is a lot more fun than the obligatory phone calls of yore.

(Image credit: (C)Copyright Patrick Heagney Photography ((C)Copyright Patrick Heagney Photography (Photographer) - [None])

Retirees Kristi Appelhans, 68, and her husband, Tony, 69, live in Idaho Falls, Idaho—about 2,000 miles from their daughter Kira’s family in Staten Island, N.Y. Although they visit every couple of months, they have found that the best way to stay connected to their grandson, Oliver, age 5, is through video chats using Skype and FaceTime.

“Once Oliver got big enough to see us, around age 1, we’d walk outside with our computer and show him our rooster or a bird’s nest,” says Kristi. At three, Oliver began guiding their long-distance interactions. “We’d watch him as he played with Legos in his living room and talk to him,” says Kristi. These days, Oliver shows them the lights on his bedroom ceiling or performs chemistry experiments, such as mixing vinegar and soda in the kitchen sink.

“Technology has allowed us to keep the connection with him strong between visits,” says Kristi. “We use it more than we expected.” Like the Appelhanses, many grandparents separated by geography from their beloved grandkids find that communicating through new tech tools is a lot more fun than the obligatory phone calls relied on by past generations.

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“Audio alone doesn’t cut it anymore. This generation expects to see someone’s face when they talk,” says Alison Hillhouse, vice president of youth culture and trends at MTV, and author of the self-published how-to guide Virtual Grandma. Her son, Charlie, 6, likes to video chat with his grandmother, who lives in Missouri. “My mom, a former schoolteacher and creative type, uses puppets and props,” says Hillhouse. “She will play with toy trucks and narrate a story to Charlie. And my dad dresses up in costumes.”

Hillhouse recommends that grandparents incorporate their grandchild’s “passionate points,” such as a love of trucks, into video chats. Walking around with your device, pointing out objects of interest, is better than standing still. “It may seem silly to you, but kids jump right into it,” she says.

Several companies are developing products to ease intergenerational communications. Business invention firm Inamoto & Co., in Brooklyn, N.Y., is working on a prototype for Mado, a video chat interface, as a way to “give kids and grandparents things to do during video chat, to have deeper conversations and more fun,” says Inamoto product designer Sheena Livingston.

It works like this: During a video chat, grandparents and kids launch a virtual spinner from their computer screens that lands on an activity they can do together, such as charades or trivia. Inamoto’s limited testing found that kids who normally video chat for five minutes have stayed on for 20 minutes, Livingston says.

Developing Digital Connections

As the grandkids acquire their own devices, grandparents can establish a direct line of communication by texting and following the kids on social media, if the kids give permission. “You’ll hear from them more if you get comfortable texting on messaging apps like WhatsApp and iMessage,” says Livingston.

Younger children often enjoy multiplayer online gaming with grandparents, says Ben Halpert, president of Savvy Cyber Kids, a youth-focused digital education nonprofit. For older grandkids, Halpert advises sharing photos. Choose an interesting image and tell a story through it, he says. A side benefit of using social media: It “gets you involved in your grandchild’s online world,” he says. But maintaining digital boundaries is key. Halpert’s tips: Don’t post unflattering photos of your grandkids. Don’t hijack every post and turn it into a conversation. Don’t use social media to guilt the grandkids.

While some grandparents may be reluctant to try new tech tools, staying connected to the grandkids can be a powerful motivator. “Ask your grandchildren for help setting up your accounts and for tips,” says Halpert. Given the doting nature of the grandparent-grandchild bond, they will probably display more patience toward you than their parents.