Thoughts on Grandparenting During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with Dr. Renee Cherow-O’Leary


1. Can you share a bit about your experience during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As grandparents, my husband and I have tried to keep enthusiasm high, find new books and activities to share on Face Time, talk and listen, laugh at silly things, celebrate birthdays and Seders, and bring the whole family in touch on Zoom though we are scattered in L.A., NY, and upstate NY.

I discovered that in my educational role, I am trying to be more like a grandparent and in my grandparenting role, I am becoming more of an educator!!

2. What are some of the experiences in your life or stories that parents or grandparents shared that have framed your thinking about living during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I grew up with two sets of grandparents around me.  My father partnered with his father in a small family business and my grandfather and grandmother lived only a few blocks from my childhood home.  My maternal grandfather lived with us.  They were in my life actively till I was in my late teens.  I adored my grandparents among other reasons because they told many stories.  I heard about how my grandmother’s grandmother in Russia hid behind a big mantel of a fireplace when the pogroms came. I heard about how my paternal grandfather ran away to Canada to avoid being conscripted in the Army of the Czar.  I learned about my maternal grandmother running away from Romania and going to Palestine with a soldier (who later was cruel to her). And I have had relatives who were in concentration camps and then found their way to the new-born state of Israel which was, in its way, a miracle.   I heard my own parents’ stories of growing up in the Depression and about going to fight in World War II and how my uncles and father were soldiers when I was a little girl.  From my own life, I remember the polio epidemic, the fears of nuclear war, and drills in the basement of my school where we hid under the desks in case nuclear bombs were dropped.  In later years, I remember the AIDS epidemic and people I knew who died, and, of course, 9/11.

I think the takeaway is that there is no way to avoid “tzuris” totally in this life.  I am terrified of an epidemic this global, but I also feel it has a symbolic meaning that we must change our ways–we must pay attention to climate change, ecology, technology, and values.  This is a huge wake-up call.  It is urgent now to take charge of this pandemic in whatever ways we can to make sure that life on earth is sustainable and our grandchildren will flourish.  I feel that we have survived throughout historic tragedies, through geologic time.  But that it is now our time to take a stand and find the leaders who can best find a path to a new world.  I do think in this case particularly we have to be visionaries.  Hearing all of the stories of the tragic past and learning how a redemptive way appeared with time, I do think we will find our way out of this.  The ancestors give me hope that we can survive too in new and unexpected circumstances.

3. You speak of being a “stabilizing force” for our children and grandchildren. Can you elaborate on that?

Our grown children who are now parents of young children are at the stage of their careers where they are vulnerable, must pay attention to their work demands, and yet also have to support their kids, our grandkids, in so many ways.  So, gently, gingerly giving them some advice from time to time is called for, some ideas about how to handle a given situation, and LISTENING a lot for the message beneath the message and when intervening might be helpful and when not.  We are aware that they are navigating uncertain futures and will have big decisions to make as situations stabilize.  Move out of New York?  Where to send Charlie to school now that school budgets will be so spare?  Will finances remain the same?  Being a stabilizing force is not knowing all the answers but being aware of the big questions–in our own lives too–that will call for rebalancing and trying to remain hopeful and helpful in the process.

We provide a security blanket of sorts and it is also what you do not do as much as it is what you do!!  So, I try to be soft, funny, empathic, offer help with the children, and model being grateful (because I am) for the support my kids and grandkids also offer us.  They observe our behaviors too (we are not always so disciplined) and it is a dance of understanding that we both try to keep time to.  What not to do is the real art–stifling criticism, being entitled, not saying thank you, giving unsolicited advice, being too involved in matters that are not yours to decide.  I think all of this is learned over time with given personalities.  But every now and then, something happens that “pushes a button” and that is the role of storytelling–to describe those times!

4. Why is it important now to share stories? 

Stories show that others have been there before us and we can get through this or at least be inspired by others (factual or fictional) who have had to go through struggle.  Personal and communal stories often call for certain kinds of behaviors–like recollection and celebration (in the Haggadah) and news stories every night on TV that are more and more outrageous and arouse behaviors of protest, for example, or stories of neighbors and friends that are humorous or cautionary or utterly surprising.  Behaviors that tell stories often go beyond words.  They emanate from remembering significant moments and giving time and attention.  This might include certain kinds of family time, or certain gestures of kindness–reaching out with a call, sending a gift, acknowledging an important day in someone’s life, expressing condolences, sharing music.  The list goes on.  I think there are also what I would call “long stories” that rely on historical perspective, stories of relatives, countries (like the Irish stories of my husband’s family) or the Jewish stories of Holocaust survivors, putting coins in a pushka (charity box) for Israel, or dancing the Hora at a festive gathering.  Behaviors are tied to experiences that are tied to memories that are tied to stories.

5. How can we balance our role as “stabilizers with the vulnerability we feel during the COVID-19 pandemic”?

This is a time that we are coming to terms with our mortality.  At our age, this has to be the case unless you actively suppress any thoughts of death. But, the coronavirus has made it official–we are vulnerable, and we may die.  We have a reason to be fearful and so do those who love us and want to protect us and, in many ways, have showed us a role reversal–our kids are now taking care of us and being watchful.  This is an act of caring to be sure but still, it does feel like there is a strange loss at the same time.  I do think that if we were healthy in “normal” times, we might experience the need to face up to age and death but in a slower way.  As we’ve learned, pandemics don’t wait!

6. Do you think the COVID-19 virus will fundamentally change elements of grandparents’ roles and relationships with family?

Only in so far as it changes, society at large.  Gatherings may shift, Zoom may become a staple as FaceTime has. All in all, I think the virus makes the grandparenting relationship all the more precious and important.  Health is at the heart of the matter and solid family relationships that are mutually sustainable and supportive seem more important than ever. When we go outside the family, there may be changes toward older people based on the economy and the feeling that it costs too much to care for them.  Trends say that we will live longer (no one factored in pandemics) so that may change the family structure.  Perhaps people will start to live closer to each other and rely on each other for support in different kinds of family configurations. The financial stability of families and the role of health insurance may become more of an issue than we know in the reconfiguration of families.

7. What do you see as some of the positives to emerge from the COVID-19 Pandemic? 

The positives are gratitude for the opportunity to live another day with loved ones–conscious gratitude. There are and will be new ways of seeing the world, new learning paradigms, more opportunities for activism, climate change, research in science, changing political life (for the better) and developing and envisioning a humanistic, green society that will be beneficial for our children and grandchildren.  The pandemic may bring more people to spirituality (perhaps to religion too, perhaps not) including yoga, meditation, a quest for solitude to gain peace of mind and toward collaboration bringing people together again to create a new post-pandemic society.  I think there will be greater respect for our precious Earth and a global sense of wholeness will emerge too.  We will be humbled by nature and try to work with it not against it to create a world closer to a Garden of Eden than a Paradise Lost.

Renée Cherow-O’Leary, PhD, is the Founder and President of Education for the 21st Century, a media consulting group in New York City which develops educational materials primarily for children, parents and teachers in multiple platforms: print, television, online, blogs.