Like a lot of grandmothers, Sheri Williams doesn't get to visit her grandchildren as often as she'd like. In part, that's because she has a full-time job and nine grandchildren spread across several time zones. The youngest one lives in Arlington, Virginia; the oldest lives in Hawaii. "I can't just drive down the street," she says.
Instead, Williams, a 63-year-old medical administrator in Springfield, Illinois relies on technology to get a virtual dose of kisses, hugs and updates. She checks Facebook for the latest photos and family news, and shares milestones (and endures tantrums) with her 14-month-old grandson in Arlington, via Skype. For her, the interaction is almost as good as it is in person. "I get to say, 'Hey, buddy,' and see him break out in a smile," she says.
Although most grandparents still communicate with their grandchildren by phone, evidence suggests that a growing number of them — baby boomers, especially — are turning to online tools to connect. Given the constraints of distance and time — a majority of boomer grandparents are still working and many of them live hundreds of miles from their grandchildren — technology is often the only way to stay connected to family, and they are increasingly comfortable using it.
Sure, most people are using more technology these days. But grandparents have a special incentive to adapt to technology, says Amy Goyer, a family expert at AARP, because they want to "stay in touch with their families." A recent survey by the organization showed that 20 percent of grandparents interviewed used technology to communicate with their grandchildren at least once a week.
A 2012 MetLife report found that almost one-third of grandparents email with their grandchildren, and almost a quarter communicate via Facebook. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that in 2014, 65 percent of adults ages 50 to 64 use social-networking sites, up from about 24 percent in 2009.
"Staying in touch with family members is one of the main motivations for using social media," says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew, "and that's especially true for adults aged 50 to 64."
Another reason for increased tech use among older Americans is that many of them become grandparents when they are relatively young — about 50. Also, about two-thirds of boomer grandparents are still in the workforce, said Wendy Manning, director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
That may make them more familiar with technology than the grandparents of a generation or two ago. Bill Ferris, 69, a professor of management at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, says he started using Skype about four years ago when he taught a class from London. He then began video chatting with his grandchildren, who live in Chicago and South Hadley, Massachusetts. "It's more fun than the phone," says Ferris, who also uses video technology to talk to his 85-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in Belize, and his 95-year-old father, who lives in another part of Massachusetts.
Linda Drake, 60, was a social worker in Denver when she first started texting. "It was a valuable tool" to stay in touch with teenagers she was working with on the job, she says, "and it made me seem cooler." When she retired four years ago, she was glad to have her smartphone. Teenagers don't like to talk on the phone or email, but they do text.
Drake now texts regularly with her six grandchildren, who range in age from 10 to 15 and are scattered from Virginia to Colorado. She also uses Instagram — sharing photos of her dog, vacations and other activities — which she likes because it allows her to stay close to her grandchildren without seeming intrusive.
When using the app, she says, "I use the name Denverdogz, not Grandmalinda." When her 15-year-old grandson posted a picture of himself hugging a girl, "I may have 'liked' it," she says, but she knew better than to leave a comment. Instagram is a better way to communicate as her grandchildren get older, she notes. "I want [them] to know that I love them, and I want them to know a little about me," she says. Expressing this in person is challenging not only because of distance and work schedules, but because of the gap that develops as the kids grow older. Teenagers are more likely to respond to a text from Grandma than talk to her on the phone.
"The immediacy of texting and Instagram, and the way that each of us feels from those fleeting interactions, keeps the relationship more vibrant," Drake says. Her 12-year-old granddaughter, Colleen, who lives Arlington, showed her how to download emoticons, "which I love," Drake says. Now "Colleen and I will go back and forth with emoticons" — smiles, applause, winks. Colleen says she loves texting with her grandmother. "It's fun because I don't get to see her much," she says. She likes telling her grandmother about meals she has eaten or asking her for help with a family recipe via Facetime.
Communicating by Facetime is "so easy and so pleasant, " says Elizabeth Amin, 69, a retired radiologist in Louisville who uses the app to visit with her toddler granddaughter in Washington, D.C. — "and I'm not a techie by any stretch of the imagination."
Amin says video chatting has strengthened her connection with her granddaughter, whom she sees in person just a few times a year. "I say, 'Give me a kiss,' and she will come toward the phone or iPad and will kiss that instead," she says. "I don't know what her little brain tells her," Amin says, "but she knows us in whatever form we are."
Indeed, says Mary-Leslie Holland, a 66-year-old grandmother of five who works at a university lab in Upstate New York, "it's so nice for the little kids to see us on-screen so they sort of know who we are when we show up instead of thinking, 'Who is this very old lady?' " Holland, whose grandchildren live in Boston and suburban Maryland, laughs about the time, eager for feedback on a new haircut, she took a selfie, and with the help of her stylist, put it on Facebook awaiting her family's response: "They liked it!"
Still, many boomer grandparents concede that technology is no substitute for actually being there. Drake says that her fondest memory of this past summer was decidedly low-tech: "Laughing uproariously at the dining room table, for over an hour, playing a card game."
Which is another issue many boomer grandparents bring up: Technology may be helping to improve relationships made difficult by challenges of time and distance, but it is also something of a tease. As nice as it is to see her grandson smiling at her onscreen, Williams says, "It breaks my heart. You don't get to sit there and hold him."
Other boomers, especially those who still work, say they've had enough screen time on the job and just want to talk face-to-face. "Technology has become necessary and very important for the type of work I do," says Joan Teemer, 63, a book sales representative based in Ohio. But when it comes to spending time with her seven grandchildren, she says, "it is nice to put it away and breathe."
Some also say that even as they enjoy the benefits of being able to "see" their grandkids online, they are wistful for the days of care packages and handwritten letters. It used to be that at the end of one's life you suddenly had this great stash of letters your mother saved," Holland says. "That will be no more."
There's also the matter of the third party in this triangle: the child's parents. Typically, they are the ones setting up the iPad for their kids or parents. Some parents may be too busy or simply unwilling — after all, even Grandma on screen is yet another thing on screen.
More often, though, families increasingly consider technology — video chatting especially — a savior. It allows them to share moments — first steps, first words, art projects, gymnastics routines, new outfits and haircuts — without the expense and time involved with doing it in person. ("I'm sure there are lip marks on [my son's] iPhone," Amin says.) Some parents even use grandparents as on-screen babysitters, entertaining the kids on a tablet while Mom or Dad is making dinner.
Technology, Drake says, helps keep "those wonderful connected feelings alive between generations, when our immediate and individual foci are elsewhere and are admittedly out of sync." It helps us "remember that we remain connected."