I have lived at least three days’ drive from my grandparents and most of my extended family my entire life. This wasn’t always as common, but now with my own kids, I can see the majority of their classmates have family spread across the country, and in some cases the world. Extended families don’t often settle in one place – and in this day and age family members may move around the globe like never before.

Our family is no different. My husband and I have family in various provinces and different countries. I can’t say that I’ve always valued consistent contact. It takes work to maintain! Instead, my days in college were spent procrastinating about calling home and rolling my eyes when my father would not-so-subtly mention, “they never hear from me”. But getting married, connecting to another whole family system and adding three kids has challenged me to change my perspective. Because we don’t have built-in daily face time with extended family, we need to get creative in the ways we can grow our family relationships. We all know these things don’t happen without effort!

I want to give my children the gift of a relationship with their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. This  means keeping them connected, communicating and sharing their lives as frequently as possible. It’s taken some creativity but I’ve found these 8 ways to use technology to help us stay connected, no matter how far apart we are.

  1. Make Use of FaceTime

It’s taken time and encouragement but finally even the grandparents have access to some form of easy video chat, whether Skype, Google Hangouts (ideal for a conversation involving several parties calling in from different places) or FaceTime. Past Christmases we’ve set up Skype on a laptop to let the grandparents in on present opening and these days it’s not uncommon to get a FaceTime call from my in-laws during dinner to talk about our day. I have a friend who makes a daily date for grandparents and grandchildren to play or read to each other using this technology. It’s free, easy to learn and once everyone has the hang of it, it can bring your distant loved ones right into your home.

  1. Join Social Media

Social media isn’t everyone’s favourite, but if younger cousins, nieces, nephews or grandkids are on it, it might be time to join. I’m sure I don’t have to mention that social media can be overwhelming (and beware the timewasting factor!) but it truly is a window into the lives of so many of my faraway family members. Without connecting through social media, I  wouldn’t get the oft daily glimpse into their normal lives. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat are all options I use, though there are many more. If the priority is simply keeping in touch with family, be diligent about keeping high privacy settings and connecting the account only with loved ones. All of these options help me to keep up on the lives of my family in a real (digital)  way.

  1. Start a Blog

If sharing life on social media doesn’t offer enough privacy or control, or it’s simply too overwhelming, blogging is another option. A blog allows for photo sharing, for telling stories, recording memories and it allows for options as to who gets to see it all. The greatest benefit of a blog is it connects everyone, all at once, in one location. It also keeps content together so that over time it can form a sort of family journal. Blogging platforms have made this free and easy. Sites like WordPress and Blogger have tutorials, themes, and very simple setup.

  1. Inexpensive Ways to Share Holiday Cheer

I live in Canada and my parents, sister and brother all live in the States. It’s frustrating how complicated and expensive shipping across the border can be in 2017!  As such, I’ve had to look for creative ways to wish them Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas. Some websites, like Etsy, will accept Canadian PayPal payments and delivery to the U.S. so I can have gifts shipped directly to my family. E-cards are another great option. If all else fails, start an arrangement with a family member (in my case, my super-shopper, sale-finding sister) who is willing to be a personal elf, delivering local packages and saving the cost of shipping. PayPal makes it easy and free to send her money and make my purchase request. It’s so easy to miss the smaller holidays when distance is an added hurdle but making the effort means so much to family members when it’s impossible to be there in person.

  1. Put Family in the Calendar

I am not good at remembering important dates and have forgotten more than a couple family birthdays. Having their birthdays in my calendar is great for wishing them well on the day but it doesn’t help me prepare when shipping times are involved. To solve this I have created alerts in my Google calendar, not for the actual day, but for the day I need to send off my gift or card, or call my “family elf” (see Tip #4!). Putting family into my calendar isn’t limited to just special occasions: I can make them a priority in my day to day as well. Schedule a time to call a sibling or send a text to a parent. I can add ‘connecting with family’ into the plan for the day just as I would with anything that’s important. It takes intention to connect and to build the habit but it’s so worth it to take the time to invest in relationships with family I can’t see often.

  1. Sign Up for Seat Sale Alerts and Travel Points

Most airline and discount ticket websites offer the option of specifying cities to keep an eye on for cheap flights. When the cost of travel lowers, they send an email alert. I recommend Travelocity, Orbitz, and Hotwire. Staying on top of the ups and downs of travel costs helps my husband and me maximize the times we can see our relatives each year. Consider changing credit cards to one that collects travel points which can be redeemed for flights, hotels or gas. This helps to make a visit with family more affordable every time the card gets used. We get our family involved in looking too. My mother-in-law has emailed us more than once with WestJet deals and because she does we’ve been able to visit her more affordably.

  1. Do Something Together, Apart.

How can we do something together when we don’t even live in the same country? There are ways to share a common bond or activity that don’t require two people in the same room at the same time. It just takes thinking outside the box and using technology to our advantage. If two family members share a love of reading, decide to read the same book at the same time and text each other thoughts (using an eReader like Kobo or Kindle can increase connection options). If siblings want to get in shape, decide on the same exercise program or app (FitBit, 30 Day Fitness and Sweat are some I use but there are countless more to fit various lifestyles and budgets) and keep each other accountable. If children enjoy games, try finding an online option like an online chess or card game which allows them to play with grandparents or cousins.

  1. Make Communication and Connection a Priority

Whatever the reasons for being away from loved ones, it may cause negative emotions from time to time about why the choice was made to live so far away. Perhaps most of the family lives close together and so absence from family functions feels like a big deal and can be hard. Whatever the situation, resist the temptation to let the lines of communication go quiet. Initiate connection even when it may be hard, especially when it might be hard! Pulling back will only add to the miles between family and feed the fears that the relationship may be lost. Take opportunities in the everyday to show family they are a valuable part of life and that the relationship can continue to grow – even if distance separates just now.

Written by Sarah Hau

Sarah Hau

Sarah is a wife and mother of three, living in the way of Jesus in downtown Vancouver. She works part-time for Inner Hope Youth Ministries and is learning to engage her passion for social justice and care for the marginalized in meaningful ways. You can learn more about her by checking out her social media sites.