Grand connection: Video chatting grandparents stay in touch with far-flung family

Isabelle Tolley chats with her grandmother, Wanda Tolley on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. (TYLER TJOMSLAND tylert@spokesman.com)

Jerome and Debbie Rauen like to fist bump with their 4-year-old grandson, a touch that crosses more than 800 miles.

At the end of FaceTime video chats several times a week, the north Spokane residents blow a kiss goodbye to him and his 2-year-old sister, who live in Northern California.

Jerome Rauen, 59, also makes a pop sound with his mouth after running a finger along the inside of his cheek. His ritual fascinates the kids, who try to mimic him. What doesn’t escape them: They know their grandparents’ faces and voices when they do visit in person.

“We’ve used FaceTime pretty much since the first one was born, probably more so since they’re older,” said Debbie Rauen, 60.

“Since they live in Northern California, and we’re still working, we usually see them three times a year. It’s a way to stay connected.”

Their grandson will bring a favorite toy to show them, and his sister says “Nana” and “Papa.”

Video chats are becoming part of everyday life, also providing a way for grandparents to visit regularly with grandchildren who live remotely. They read bedtime stories or watch a baby’s first steps.

It’s made easier by built-in cameras and microphones now commonplace on computers and mobile devices, and with better broadband connections and apps.

Sometimes, grandparents living in the same city use video chats to strengthen bonds. That’s true for the Tolley family in Spokane. Isabelle Tolley, 17 months old, regularly babbles with two grandmothers who both live a short drive away.

“Izzy is just at a perfect age for interacting, talking, waving, blowing kisses,” said Izzy’s father, Luke Tolley, who uses the Google app called Duo to work across both Android and Apple platforms. “She even does a little bit of the gibberish where it sounds like conversation.”

His mother-in-law, Spokane Valley resident Joy Wesselman, had a medical condition for about six months that prevented her from driving, so regular screen time with Izzy gave her much-needed grandma fixes, Tolley said.

Though Wesselman, 56, saw the Tolleys during weekend visits, they started using short video chats typically every night before Izzy’s bedtime.

“She isn’t really talking yet, but she gets excited to hear my voice,” Wesselman said. “The first time she sees me on the phone, she tries to kiss my face.”

Izzy’s grandfathers participate too. And Izzy’s other grandma, Wanda Tolley, 60, also enjoys short video chats during the week, although she lives closer to them in Spokane.

“Both families are busy all the time,” she said. “I’m working. Her parents are working. I think it’s really important so she can see a face and connect with you.

“We try to get together in person as much as possible, but sometimes when we’re all busy, we can go actually weeks. With video chats, she can connect the voice with the face. You actually get to see her a little more often. Even a five-minute video helps.”

Skype, which Microsoft acquired in May 2011, marked 10 years in January and reached a milestone of 2 trillion minutes of free Skype video calls during that decade. It joins Apple’s FaceTime and Google Chat among options for distant face-to-face conversations.

“I think Skype is a miracle,” said Betsy Lawrence, 57, who video chats from Spokane with an adult daughter, her husband and 20-month-old grandson living in Austria. “He’s being raised bilingually. He just jabbers, but I’m grandma.”

“Sometimes, he plays hide-and-seek or peekaboo, and he’ll get behind the drapes,” Lawrence added. “I’ll do the same play-acting and go away from the camera and back in again. I’m hoping we can start doing some reading, looking at a book. We blow kisses at each other and make funny faces.”

Medical Lake resident Shannon Waechter, 57, uses FaceTime every evening for a short visit with one of her granddaughters, 16-month-old Scarlett, who lives in Tacoma.

“When I visit them in Tacoma, Scarlett knows me,” Waechter says. “It’s amazing to me when that little redhead who has just learned to walk stumbles over to me smiling like a maniac and throws herself at me like I’m there every day.”

Waechter has a motto for those frequent, brief video chats. “It’s not quality. It’s quantity. We should all go for quantity because you never know when those important moments will happen.”

And now, moments happen almost magically, she said. “It’s just an accept button; it’s foolproof.”

“The minute Scarlett does something new and they know I’d appreciate it, they FaceTime me right away so I can be a part of it. Those five minutes a day are way more meaningful than an hour on a Saturday would be.”

Regular video-chatting grandparents say certain tips help with young children.

    Read a children’s picture book, and show illustrations on screen.

    Keep sessions at first to perhaps five to 10 minutes.

    Also watch them play or do an activity; it doesn’t all need to be talk.

    Find a ritual that becomes familiar such as a game or funny faces.

    For older children, show a family artifact to talk about shared history.

Rauen says playfulness goes a long way when children aren’t very verbal.

“Have a certain game you play with them,” Rauen said. “It might just be making faces or a ritual that becomes familiar. Don’t expect it to be very long. They have a short attention span.”

Mental health counselor Melissa Spivey in Spokane has both professional outlook and personal experience with video chats as a way for grandparents to connect beyond physical visits.

Spivey, 61, uses FaceTime a couple times a week with four grandchildren, from age 3 to 7, who live in Portland and Everett. When the connections occur, even on a screen, she describes them as moments of mutual delight.

“I can remember with all of the grandchildren that moment when they recognized who we were on the other end, and the happy face they had,” she said. “They were still babes, about 7 or 8 months old.”

Regular chats also support a child’s need, or anyone’s really, to be seen, heard, and known by another who loves them, Spivey added, and to develop a sense of who they are. Now that her grandchildren are older, they typically start conversations by asking the child about recent activities.

“Our grandsons are really into Legos, and often they’ll put their current structure in a do-not-disturb place in the room because they want to show it to us,” Spivey said. “With our granddaughters, it might be a new song they learned in Sunday school or preschool.”

Social media also provides generational connections daily, including photographs exchanged on iPhones, she said.

“I’d love for them to live across the street, but when that can’t happen, I love as a grandmother getting to be included in some of the firsts.”

Bill Sachse, 81, and his wife Jackie, 79, started about five years ago using weekly video time to see the youngest three grandchildren in Seattle and California. Their four eldest ones have lived close by in Spokane.

“It’s kept us very connected. They know who we are when they see us. We can see how they have grown, because children grow so quickly during those first years,” Jackie Sachse said.

Now, a 4-year-old granddaughter she’s read to during video chats will go get a book to share with her. “She doesn’t read yet but she tells me what’s in the book and shows me the stories. Her little brother is starting to do the same thing. It’s so cute.”

“I would recommend it for all grandparents.”

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