IT’S hard to surpass the feelgood glow of that magical warm hug when grandchildren wrap themselves around you on the first meet-up after a long absence — it’s like all your Christmases have come at once.
The emotional undercurrent revving up the intensity of that cuddle, is the mutual awareness that time together is so precious — this is the stratospheric excitement of the ‘hello’, but waiting in the wings is the stomach-churning ‘goodbye’.
Of course, that is pretty much one-sided when they are babies, but thanks to being able to video chat online, those babies grow up to be toddlers sitting on a parent’s lap, getting as familiar with nana and grandad’s facial features and voice, as if they were physically in the room together.
From then onwards, as I have learnt, you can chat away, make silly noises and enjoy the full flourish of each other’s personalities as if life always offered that wonderful technical opportunity — and of course, it has, for them.
A major spinoff of this virtual inter-generational relationship is that when grandparents are lucky enough to have those physical encounters, there is not that gaping chasm that existed in days gone by, when photographs, snail post and expensive long-distance phone calls, were the thread that held three generations together.
For 83-year-old Marie O’Gorman from Walkinstown, in Dublin, the desire to keep in touch with her 20 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren “scattered” everywhere,
encouraged her to learn how to use a computer and the free phone messaging app WhatsApp.
“It’s very important especially that I make contact with them at Christmas. In Armenia they are four hours ahead of us and in America six hours behind ... so we have to say ‘what time is it there?’,” she laughs.
“My youngest granddaughter Lois is in Armenia and will be four at the end of this month. When we’re talking she’ll say: ‘I can’t see you’, so I have to change [to video] on the WhatsApp. It’s very important that she sees me.
“I wouldn’t see her much in person but she would know me as well as anyone else because we see one another all the time on the phone.
“Isn’t it wonderful with the grandkids when we can’t be near one another, that we can talk and keep in touch. It’s terrific for me.
“I’m not brilliant but I know the bits that I want to email and [how to] use WhatsApp. That’s what it’s all about,” says Marie.
Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications with Age Action, says it’s one of the main reasons older people come to them to learn how to use computers and iPads.
“They want to keep in touch with relatives who are overseas and particularly with their grandchildren. The skills they’re always most interested in learning are how to use things like Facebook, Skype and FaceTime, the kinds of tools that allow them to see and speak to their grandchildren so easily, to share pictures, to stay a part of their lives,” he says.
The benefits of that intergenerational relationship, for both sides, have been increasingly the source of research as longevity extends and grandparents fit into changing family patterns — whether in ‘real time’ or virtually.
Research at the University of Oxford, for instance, has shown how grandparents play a vital role in children’s wellbeing and the results have been informing British family policy.
The study by Professor Ann Buchanan from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention showed a high level of grandparent involvement increases the wellbeing of children with fewer emotional and behavioural problems.
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, says the “virtual global village” that technology provides often comes more into view when we approach the Christmas season which is very much about connectedness.
“I remember as a child talking with my Aunt Mary in England at Christmas but I also remember being rushed to conclude the conversations as the cost of a call to the UK back then did not come cheap,” he says.
“However, now we have Skype and FaceTime and all the others, which offer a richer and cheaper communicative experience that we can all enjoy.
“It’s important that parents encourage children and support grandparents to embrace this technology and reap the benefits of seeing how animated the grandchildren get and share in that pre-Santa excitement,” he says.
My guess is that this Christmas, all some grandparents wished for from Santa was to have their children and their children’s children from abroad, at home. The emotional barometer rises high during the festive season.
Those who have got their Santa wish will be sharing traditions and perhaps even hosting their grandchildren in their son or daughter’s childhood home.
However, for those who don’t get the actual hug, pressing that camera icon on the computer or mobile device will be the next best thing. And what a wonderful time of the year it is, to do it.