COVID-19 has kept many people apart from their loved ones this year. For grandparents, this has meant missing milestones they would normally be close at hand to celebrate, as well as a year's worth of hugs and cuddles.
But as the vaccine rollout continues, grandparents are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and are looking forward to seeing their youngest family members again.
In an ordinary year, Saskatoon grandmother of six Marley Waiser would be spending lots of time entertaining her grandchildren with visits, sleepovers, baking marathons, trips to the park and dress-up games. Some of her grandchildren live as far away as Australia, and while the others live in Saskatoon and Regina, most of those activities are still off the table for the duration of the pandemic.
"With the girls, who right now are 10 and seven, we have always baked together," she said. "Our favourite thing to do is making brownies. So they both push chairs up to the kitchen counter, and then they hitch their butts up onto the counter and they take turns adding things. And then the best part, of course, is licking whatever is left over in the bowl or on the beaters.
"I've been making brownies since then … but every time I finish, I look at the beaters and I look at the bowl and I think, 'Where are the girls?'"
For Waiser and her husband, Bill, it has been difficult to watch their grandchildren's growth spurts, birthdays and achievements from a distance, unable to be as active in their lives as they would normally be.
"We miss reading to them," she said. "We've got a whole basket full of books for them. One of their favourites is If Monsters Had Haircuts, but now, the two youngest would be able to read the book to us. So there are lots of unique experiences that are just not there anymore."
Waiser is not alone. Dr. Samir Sinha, director of health policy at the National Institute on Aging, says the pandemic has had an enormous impact on grandparents and their entire families.
"For so many grandparents and grandchildren, these are precious bonds that really bring together two different generations and allow people to interact in different ways with each other. That helps them both emotionally, but also physically as well," he said. "And so this real loss that we've actually suffered over the past year has been particularly devastating for grandparents who really look towards these opportunities to celebrate those precious milestones that you only get once."
Difficult to pass on culture
Karla Williamson is a Greenlandic Inuit woman who lives in the Blackstrap, Sask., area, while her grandchildren live in Iqaluit. Williamson has been able to connect with her grandchildren through texts, phone calls and video chats, but that has only gone so far to replace a year's worth of visits.
"It's far from that physical closeness of kissing and hugging and singing songs with them and doing things together," she said.
Spending a year apart from her grandchildren has also made it more difficult for Williamson to share her culture with them.
"It's been really difficult because of the fact that they each speak my Greenlandic Inuktitut dialect," she said. "And for that to be continued, it's absolutely essential that I have direct access to them, for them to be able to continue to enjoy speaking the language freely. So it's been difficult in many ways."
The need for physical touch
Sinha says the pandemic has highlighted the value of this sort of physical closeness for many people, and while technological creativity can go a long way to help, it doesn't replace those in-person moments.
"Hugging is the No. 1 thing people ask me about," he said. "When can I hug my loved one? [Because] ultimately we're social creatures. That's how we're built, and we're built to be physically with one another. We're built to want, to crave and give human contact, physical contact."
Williamson already knows her first post-pandemic trip will be to see her family in Iqaluit, and she is looking forward to her whole family being vaccinated. She is currently waiting for her appointment, while her daughter and son-in-law are getting their first doses next week.
Waiser is also looking forward to getting her shots, whenever that may be.
"It's slow, and it's hard to be patient as we're waiting for spring to come and waiting to be vaccinated," she said. "[But] there is light at the end of the tunnel."