Grandparenting via technology

Felix Chew with his grandchildren.

“I MISS daddy,”Deonalce, aged five, said one night while watching “Finding Nemo” animated cartoon on his iPad.

“We can call him, do you want to call,” asked his grandfather, Felix Chew, a 65-year-old retiree, as he reached for his mobile phone in his pocket.

“No, I want to video-call him,” Deonalce replied before tapping open the ‘WeChat’ green icon on his iPad to start a face-to-face chat with his dad who was working in Singapore.

Chew said he was amazed how his grandson could do it all by himself, adding: “We never taught him — he just knew how after exploring the application or maybe he had watched how we did it. Of course, adult supervision is still necessary.”

Like Deonalce, that’s how many children his age keep in close touch with their parents (mum or dad) working far from home – by using connectivity from digital technology applications like Facebook, WhatsApp and Skype or gadgets like smartphones, tablets and computers.

These high-tech devices bridge the physical distance separating children from their parents or grandparents.

Deonalce’s father returned to Kuching a few months ago for good after spending years working overseas.

Chew noted: “Technology still plays an important role even when we get to stay together. For instance, Deon and his cousins can still take lots of pictures and videos to send to their parents if they cannot come to join them on any occasion.”

Digital natives

Grandchildren are digital natives because they grow up in the Digital Age. They would probably play with an iPhone with one hand and eating a burger with the other. Nearly everywhere you look, kids — even adults – are glued to their smartphones, iPads or some other electronic devices.

The Digital Age is in full bloom but it’s not all bad and parents and grandparents need to be savvy participants otherwise they will be left behind.

Being digital immigrants, they are generally strangers to smart phones, social media and the widespread use of computers. That means the hardware, software and apps children take for granted can be intimidating to older people.

According to Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society (MHAS) president Professor Dr Philip George, parenting nowadays is becoming more and more challenging following the advent of the Internet and social media.

More and more children now have gadgets and they spend a lot of their time on them, engrossed in all kinds of things, effectively cutting themselves off from their parents.

Dr Philip, a consultant psychiatrist and an addiction medicine specialist, said there is also an increase in smaller families — also termed as “nuclear families” — stemming from many elderly people are not living in the same house, even the same place or country with their children and grandchildren.

This is where grandparenting can play a role via technology, especially in looking after children both of whose parents are working and have little time to spend with them.

“When physical distances come between nuclear families and grandparents, digital access may help bridge the divide.

“Therefore, grandparents will have to learn Skype or WhatsApp video calls to connect with their grandchildren,” he said.

Dr Philip was one of the speakers at the recent Asean Conference on Healthy Ageing 2017 where “Grandparenting in the Digital Age” was one of the topics.

He said a grandparenting role would be suitable for those living within accessible distance from their grandchildren.

These elderly people also needed to know about the dangers impressible young minds were exposed to through the use of communication tools, he added.

Learning to get connected through digital communication tools.

Doing it together

On how grandparents could keep their grandchildren safe in the digital world, Dr Philip said it had to be a collective effort — both parents and grandparents having similar rules on screen time and Internet-social media access.

He observed that children often broke rules when parental control was lacking, pointing out that in this regard, grandparents may be tested in their role as caregivers.

“Checking what the children have access to and restricting them to only the safe sites are the responsibility of all caregivers.

“The children need to be shown that the boundaries remain the same with both their parents and grandparents.”

Dr Philip said to get more involved in their grandchildren’s “digital” lives, grandparents needed to first spend not only “digital” time among themselves but also ‘slot time’ in which they could use the Internet together and visit sites that stimulate learning to provide guidance for their grandchildren.

“Gramps, thus, need to be better equipped with digital knowledge and upgrade their gadgets. Off-line, they can also come up with activities that create a better mix such as exercise, playing a board game or eating meals together with no gadgets on the dining table.”

Long distance parenting

As for long distance grandparenting, Dr Philip said it would be good to have a family handphone plan so that grandparents and grandchildren could chat freely without having to worry about the bill.

“Set aside time to talk on the phone as often as possible. Or make it a nightly routine before going to bed. Children usually take comfort in knowing their grandparents are just a phone call away. And children and grandparents can develop a very close relationship by talking regularly.”

He added that grandparents usually loved to see pictures of their growing grandchildren and some grandchildren also liked to see pictures of their grandparents running their daily errands.

“Creating a digital photo album with recent and old pictures, tagged with interesting informative captions, can be a fun project for grandparents and a perfect gift for grandchildren.

“It has been observed young children are fond of seeing pictures of their grandparents going about their day-to-day activities — cooking in the kitchen, weeding in the garden, working at the office or reading a book.

“By providing the kids with a visual of their grandparents doing things, they can feel connected to their old folks.”

Grandchildren are digital natives, because they are growing up in the Digital Age.

One-on-One Time

Dr Philip said it was easy for children to get lost in the commotion when families got together.

This, he noted, would naturally drive kids to play with their cousins of the same age if they were lucky to have them around.

During a get-together, it would be a good idea for grandparents to find the chance to spend one-on-one time with a grandchild or even several grandchildren at a time, he said.

“It’s fun for little children to see elderly people also having fun like them (kids). The situation creates an environment where the kids can feel their grandparents are ‘in their club’ and this will make them feel their grandparents are ‘friends’ whom they feel very comfortable with.

“At other times, one of the best ways to develop or maintain a bonding with a grandchild is for a grandma to find a ‘time slot’ to read a book alone with the grandchild or for a grandpa to walk alone in a park with the grandchild.

“These intimate interactions between grandparents and grandchildren create lasting memories and sustain children (and also grandparents) during the time they are apart.

“And when they get together again virtually in cyber world, they would still feel that intimate connection developed while they were physically together.”

Dr Philip said elderly people who had lived up to this era of information and communication technology were considered “very lucky” compared to their ancestors who had missed out on this new development.

He pointed out that old timers should seize the opportunity to learn as much as possible about all the new things instead of allowing themselves to be intimidated by them.

“Grandparents can even use their interest in learning how to use new digital gadgets as a basis to create teacher-learner bonding with their grandchildren already expert in using these gadgets.”

Sharing a personal experience, he said his daughter who left to study abroad, is now keeping happily in touch with her grandparents, adding that before she left two years ago, she made an effort to teach her grandparents how to use some of the new communication applications.

“Now, the gadgets are bridging the physical divide between them. They are always exchanging messages and photos. That, I should say, is one beautiful example  of digital grandparenting.”

Creativity always useful

According to Dr Philip, some creativity is always useful in digital grandparenting.

Giving an example, he said: “There is this little boy who loves trucks. So his grandma keeps some toy trucks around her home. During the grandma-and-grandchild digital communication through FaceTime, she would talk to the boy and show him she’s pushing the trucks around.

“She even does silly things like putting pieces of paper in a dump truck and video-shoots herself bringing the truck outside her house to dump the ‘garbage’ into the garbage bin.

“She also runs outside the house to video the real garbage truck when it comes around to collect the refuse.”

Dr Philips said the boy’s grandfather also did his digital grandparenting part.

When taking his walk around a construction area, the elderly man would video the goings-on and share them with his grandson and the boy also found it fun watching the video over and over again, he added.

“Sometimes they’re just not going to pay attention to you and not think what you’re doing is interesting and funny if you’re not creative enough. You just have to try different things, mix them up and be creative.

“Talking to a child over FaceTime can be just like doing it in person. A kid would be mesmerised if you, say, have a new toy to show him or her.

“Just watch YouTube for inspiration. There’s this phenomenon called ‘unboxing.’ It’s when people film themselves opening boxes of toys and playing with them. Kids love it.”

Dr Philip said this was one way to bring “digital natives”and “digital immigrants,” together, adding that it was like the experience created between his daughter and her grandparents.

He added that parents could also help create an environment where grandparents and grandchildren could bond over social media.

“They can do this by ensuring the grandparents have Internet access and their knowledge of communication gadgets and digital media is up to date. The parents can encourage the grandparents to communicate regularly with the grandchildren via these platforms.”

Asked how true is it that there is a growing number of grandparents desperate to keep up with technology and social media and why others choose to remain offline, he replied: “While seniors’ usage of smartphones and the Internet is on the rise, it’s difficult to ignore the big technology gap that exists for those over 65.

“Health and mobility can present challenges, ranging from poor eyesight to uncontrollable shaking which make handphones and tablets harder to use. It’s not rare for older people to prefer devices with larger solid buttons to SmartScreen devices. Some may be adamant about not wanting to learn new things or they just want to get information via the traditional way.”

So how to encourage grandparents to embrace technology instead of being scared of it?

According to Dr Philip, this is a family thing. Children can help their parents do it step by step — doing calls first, then maybe messages. Patience is the key.

“Involve them in your own usage and maybe give them a chance to play a game online that you are playing. The basics for you may not be basics for them. Go through the introduction slowly. Get their peers who use digital media to also be involved. Once they are connected with their peers, they learn faster.”

Increased life expectancy

He said with continued advancement in healthcare, people are living longer and the young-old population ratio is also becoming narrower as time passes.

“With dramatically increased life expectancy, many grandparents will experience this family role for 30 or more years. Thus, more children will have the opportunity to develop enduring relationships with their grandparents.

“Presently, 94 per cent of older Americans with children are grandparents, and it’s estimated 50 per cent will become great grandparents.

“Due to migration, people are scattered the world over like never before. There are now more nuclear families whose grandchildren are residing far from their grandparents. They, thus, have to resort to digital technology to connect with one another.”

Dr Philip added that compared to first-time parents, grandparents could, in fact, provide “very effective parenting” as they were able draw on the skills and knowledge from past experiences.

So who is more important? Grandparents or parents?

According to Dr Philip, parents are essentially a child’s most important care-givers unless the child spends most of its time with the grandparents.

He noted that grandparents and parents may have different parenting methods but between them, the ones who spent the most time with a child would usually have the most influence.

He said there was also a study by Boston College researchers that found emotionally close ties between grandparents and adult grandchildren reduced depressive symptoms in both groups.

“Surprisingly, they also found there are “private things” grandchildren are more willing to share with their grandparents than their parents or anyone else,” he added.

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