Gathering the Family Electronically
Whether you live across town from your family members or across an ocean, staying in touch has never been easier. From Wii to Internet video calling to online photo and video sharing sites, today's electronic media outlets are helping families connect like never before.
Head to Martha Clark's home in Elizabethtown on a Thursday night, and you're likely to see four generations of her family laughing, eating, mingling--and vying for a turn in front of her Wii (pronounced "we"), the video game system that's known for getting people up and moving with its realistic games.
Clark, 84, received the Wii for Christmas 2007 as a present from her kids and grandkids. When she first opened the box, she wasn't sure what it was.
"The kids were so excited," says Clark, a mother of seven, grandmother of 18, and great-grandmother of nine. "And I said, 'Well, what is it?' I'm not sure I'd even heard of one before then."
It didn't take long, though, for the Wii to become a regular part of the family's longtime tradition of gathering at Clark's home each week for "Thirsty Thursday."
All the members of her large family live near one another--most still live in Elizabethtown, with the farthest in nearby Bardstown--and they've always been close-knit, Clark says. But the Wii has enhanced that closeness, especially between the generations.
Now, when Clark's younger grandchildren and great-grandchildren--the youngest is 2--pile through the door, the first thing out of their mouth is "Let's play bowling!" Or golf. Or horseshoes. Or darts. Or basketball. All virtually, of course, on the Wii. But you'd be surprised at what a physical workout the game gives you.
"Usually the kids and Grandma are the ones playing it the most," says Clark's grandson, Mitch, 35. "It's a fun thing. It lets them spend some quality time with their great-grandma, and see that fun side of her."
Mitch Clark's son, Jackson, 5, particularly loves to best his dad, grandfather, and great-grandma at bowling each week. There is no Wii at his house, so he looks forward to playing with his extended family each Thursday.
"Jackson was on a tear the other day," Martha says. "He was playing beautifully. He was making strikes. He beat all of us. He was a riot. He gets so excited."
There are Wii games to fit almost any family's interests--from Guitar Hero to crossbow training to skiing. Consider trying one at your family's next get-together, and you may be surprised how much fun you'll all have.
Free video calling
When Lori Hall of Clay City first used SKYPE--a popular software application that allows you to make free, real-time video conferencing calls over the Internet--she wasn't prepared for how emotional it would be. You can literally see the people you're talking with, no matter where they are in the world.
Hall's grandmother, Ruby, a native of London who met her grandfather, a GI and Kentucky native, during World War II, kept in touch with her British sister and extended family through letters and once-yearly phone calls for years after moving to the States.
By 2006, the family had gone high-tech enough to regularly exchange notes and photos via e-mail. They even set up their own private chat room. They added MySpace, a popular social networking site, in 2007. But that was all typing back and forth. It didn't feel personal.
Before Ruby's death in 2007 at age 90, Hall and her British great-aunt, Irene, and Irene's granddaughter, Sarah, had become extremely close, exchanging notes daily. They urged Hall to get with the times and buy a Web cam so they could finally "talk" in person.
Hall received a Web cam for her birthday and put her first SKYPE call into her family in Sittingbourne, in the English county of Kent, in November 2007. What she saw shocked her.
"I wasn't really prepared for what I was going to see. My grandmother had passed away, and Irene looked and sounded just like her. It was so emotional," says Hall, 35. "Her granddaughter would say something and she'd make a gesture that looked just like her, and I'd think, 'Oh, it's Grandma's face. I remember Grandma looking at me like that.'"
Now, Hall chats online with her family in Kent often. Her son, Clayton, 6, loves to get on the computer and share news from kindergarten or schoolwork he's recently done. Often he'll take the laptop outside, to show his British relatives his family's dogs, cats, cows--even his T-ball swing.
During a recent party for Irene's birthday, the two sides of the family gathered in front of their Web cams and it felt--almost--as if they were at the table together.
"They had a 'piggies at a picnic' cake for her, and they said, 'Which piece do you want, Clayton? We'll put it in the mail to you.' And a couple of weeks later, it arrived," Hall says. "It was like we were all right there at tea time together."
Video calls help Mark Haury of Annville stay connected with his family, too.
Haury's job as a towboat pilot keeps him out of town for four weeks at a time, pushing oil barges upriver from New Orleans to Chicago or Corpus Christi to Memphis, and all the places in between.
When he can, he gets online to e-mail or do video calls with his family, as a way of staying connected.
Haury and his wife, Mel, both Louisiana natives, moved to Kentucky just two years ago, after he fell in love with the beauty of the state during his work trips. Their one regret was leaving behind their beloved granddaughters, Sydney, 10, Mackenzie, 5, and Emma, 1.
But they've found using Yahoo! Instant Messenger to do free Internet video calls with their granddaughters is the next best thing to being there with them. The girls will show them schoolwork they've done or new clothes they're particularly proud of.
"It's maintained our relationships," Haury says. "Our family makes great use of the Internet."
Family blogs and Web sites
When you need to send out notes to dozens of family members--say, with the latest details of an upcoming reunion--e-mailing can become cumbersome. A great alternative is setting up your family's own family blog or Web site, where you can post news of upcoming get-togethers, share recent photos or videos of holiday celebrations, and post a calendar of everyone's birthdays and anniversaries, so no one forgets when it's time to send those greeting cards.
Setting up a blog--short for Web log--is free and easy on sites like blogger.com or wordpress.com. Web sites are easy to create, too--even for those who aren't tech-savvy--through free sites like weebly.com, or easysite.com, which does charge a monthly fee. Be aware, though, that in most cases when you blog or create Web pages, the information is public--anyone, family member or not, can read it.
If you want more privacy, consider setting up a family Web site through sites like myfamily.com, which is free to use but requires readers to have an access code to see your pages.
Kim Bush, manager of marketing and member services at Grayson RECC, and her husband, Brian, set up a blog called tylersupdate.com last year to keep friends and relatives up to date on their son Tyler's treatment for cancer.
Happily, Tyler, 12, is now in remission, and the Bushes' latest blog updates show photos of him happy, smiling, and well.
But during the difficult nine months of his treatment, Kim says, the blog provided an easy way of sharing news in a single source with literally thousands of people in Grayson and around the world praying for Tyler.
"It was an outlet for us," Kim says. "Writing it, sitting in the hospital room after he went to sleep each night, was a way for us to take in the day ourselves. It was therapeutic for us, as well as a means of getting the information out there."
If your eyes glossed over just now because you think these social networking tools are only for teens and 20-somethings, think again.
Granted, MySpace tends to have a decidedly younger demographic, but of the 300 million active users of Facebook, the fastest growing segment are those 35 and older. Same thing with Twitter, a free "microblogging" service that allows users to send and receive short status update messages of up to 140 characters known as "tweets." The majority of Twitter users are 35 and up and it has become used heavily for business marketing.
With its easy-to-use search tool, Facebook is a great place to find and reconnect with old friends and relatives who live far away. Want to look up that second cousin in Idaho? Or post video of your grandchild's first birthday party for other family members to see? Facebook is an ideal tool for both.
Many people now also use Facebook instead of e-mail as their go-to means of sending quick messages to their closest network of friends and family.
Julie Rhea Lewis, member services secretary at Grayson RECC, uses Facebook regularly to stay in touch with one of her two sons at Morehead State University and her daughter, a freshman at Eastern Kentucky University. She regularly IMs with her other son at Morehead.
Keeping a college student's busy schedule in mind, she'll send them a quick note on Facebook so they know to give her a call. She can look on their pages and see postings about recent class projects or tests and see photos of them with their friends. It helps her feel in the loop of her kids' worlds--without feeling as though she's pestering them.
"It's not that I'm trying to keep an eye on them in terms of monitoring them necessarily," Lewis explains. "But if you've got a couple of minutes, it's really cool to turn it on and look. Just to know they're good. They're happy."
Photo sharing sites
With all the great, easy-to-use free photo sharing sites available today, there's just no excuse for keeping your family's digital images trapped on your camera's memory card.
Sites like flickr.com, shutterfly.com, and snapfish.com make it literally a snap to download and share photos of your recent family vacation, your children's sporting events, or your retirement party with family around the globe.
Many of these sites also offer step-by-step online tools to help you compile and print your photos in attractive hard-copy albums.
Carol Jones of Elizabethtown has used Shutterfly to create several keepsake albums for her 1-year-old grandson, Bryce, who lives in London, Kentucky. Each one documents special occasions and milestones as he's grown.
When Jones' daughter-in-law, Amy, sends family members new photos of Bryce each month via e-mail on Shutterfly, Jones uploads them into her own Shutterfly account. Then, when she's ready to make an album, all the photos are there for her to choose from.
"The first album took maybe a week to pull together, but now, I can do one in a couple of days, really," Jones says. "It's so easy to do."
So don't let distance be an obstacle. Sharing news, photos, and home movies with family--however near or far--can be as easy as a few clicks of the mouse. It's almost as good as being there.
THE FLOH CLUB
For senior adults who didn't grow up with computers, all the talk of social networking sites, video conferencing calls, instant messaging, and the like can be confusing--if not downright intimidating.
That's why Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch fame has recently launched THE FLOH CLUB, a fee-based subscription service that caters to older adults, offering help with setting up, configuring, and using a personal computer to e-mail, do IM, video conference, and more.
Memberships in THE FLOH CLUB are $250 per year or $25 per month (minimum six months' commitment) and their One-Time Empowerment Service (one-time assistance with a single computer issue) for $50. Members have access to an expert help line seven days a week between 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time.
"I know how overwhelming technology can be," Henderson says. "Only recently have I learned to share photos, video conference, and send e-mails. I'm genuinely excited to help make technology easier for people like me through THE FLOH CLUB."
For more information, go online to www.flohclub.com.
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