The most important thing for my parents, ages 85 & 86, is family. Living in a retirement community just outside of Seattle, they count on and make plans for regular get-togethers with their grandchildren and children who live close. And they count down days on their calendars for when out-of-town family members, including their two great-grandchildren, are coming to visit, and for those times when they pack their CPAP machines to go on the road themselves.
I also want to give them a lot of credit to have become as technologically savvy as they are. They both have laptops and are comfortable sending and receiving email. My mom has an iPhone and is adept at texting (maybe a bit too adept, if you know what I mean…). And when my brother’s family in San
Francisco sent them a digital photo frame that allowed pictures to be uploaded remotely, my mom embraced what only a few years ago seemed like a sci-fi fantasy to her. The photo frame sits on their dining table and is often set to shuffle during breakfast, just to see what may have been uploaded overnight.
Still, laptops, email, an iPhone, and a digital photo frame do not replace the in-person contact that they crave and, frankly, need to live fulfilling lives. So when the physical distancing and isolation orders came down and they became prisoners in their own apartment with no visitation options, the sadness was measurable. Was there some way to provide them a connection to family that even in a small way could fill the gap?
I gave my mom a call and asked her if she’d like to try chatting on Zoom. To her, I think Zoom was either a hot cereal or a TV show for kids on PBS, so it took a little explaining. I sent her a link to my Zoom room and asked her to click on it (the first time I suggested she click on something took some explaining, too, but she managed).
That first time clicking on a Zoom link brings up a series of screens. To my mom’s credit, she’s learned to not click on the accept or approve buttons when pop-up windows appear, so some additional handholding was needed. But once she had the Zoom app downloaded and installed, and clicking on the link took her to a video screen and she saw me, some of that distancing pain started to abate. I helped her activate her camera and her microphone, adjust her screen a little bit, and we hung up the phone.
We were now chatting on Zoom.
I invited her to participate in a Zoom-based social connection group I had formed to reduce isolation and she accepted. In that first experience, she met two of my online friends, one in England and the other in Denmark, and was hooked on the possibilities. I suggested to her that I invite the family, everyone, to come to a get-together at 5pm on the upcoming Saturday, playfully saying I would call the event “Beer with Grandad” to get her husband, my dad, bought in. It worked.
I wasn’t sure who all might show up for the Beer with Grandad event at 5pm on Saturday. Predictably, my parents tried to log in a few minutes early and were distressed that something wasn’t working. But I arrived early, too, and opened the room. They relaxed a bit. Then, one by one or group by group, family members started to appear.
- Melinda, my wife, was sitting next to me.
- Scott, my oldest brother, and his partner Sally logged in.
- Steve, the middle son, and his wife Deb were on.
- In came Tammy and Olivia, Scott’s daughters, followed be Stephanie, their older sister, and her husband, Moises.
- Chloe, Melinda’s and my older daughter, and her partner Alex arrived. So did Ella, our younger daughter.
- Nick, Steve & Deb’s son, was there, along with his partner, Diana.
- Nick’s older sister, Jessica, and her husband, Vince, arrived. And perhaps most importantly to my parents, there were Carina, age 4, and Enzo, age 2, Jessica’s and Vince’s kids, the great-grandchildren.
Everyone was there. Everyone.
Beer choices were shared, toasts were made, updates were given. Warmth, what melts sadness, was ample. My parents beamed for well over an hour. Sitting on their living room couch in a retirement community in virtual lockdown, somehow their entire family had come to visit them.
As the hour passed and people moved on to their next Saturday activities, there was positive energy to spare. After I closed the room, I called my parents and my father answered, a rare occurrence. He commented with joy what an incredible experience that had been, going so far as to recognize that it’s unlikely everyone will manage to get together in person before he moves on to the great beer garden in the sky. Lives are full and distances great.
In his reflection, he recognized that the pandemic, as bad as it is, had provided him and my mother an opportunity they would not otherwise have had. For one, what would the chances be of everyone being in their homes at 5pm on a Saturday? And what reason would we have had to try to get together on Zoom?
Yet now we have one, and another opportunity is scheduled to take place this Saturday. It’s again called Beer with Grandad.