Tom’s own children have two grandmothers living in Montgomery County and see them constantly. After the coronavirus curtailed those visits, Tom introduced a new idea—talking on the telephone. “We practice every day,” she tells me, “and I think it’s adding a new layer to the kids’ relationship with their grandmas.” When grandparents don’t live nearby and can’t see their grandchildren regularly, they can still play an important role for the younger generation, Tom says. “Make the effort to encourage them and cheer them on. Children can always use more cheerleaders. Everyone loves care packages. Everyone loves snail mail. Consider being their pen pal.”

I share Isabel’s compassion, and not just because I’m 77, with plenty of white hairs and well-earned wrinkles. Like her, I grew up with a grandparent in the house, my mother’s father, Harry Schanbam, an immigrant from Russia. He was a carpenter, and actually built our home in Bayonne, New Jersey. My other two living grandparents, Abe and Miriam Rogow, lived three blocks away. All were a central part of my childhood: Harry drove me to baseball practice; Miriam cooked Sunday dinner. Abe told me tales of his youth that inspired me to become a writer. I never had a babysitter I wasn’t related to.

Today, with six grandchildren of my own, I totally understand Isabel’s idea that youngsters have “superpowers” to enchant and enrich their elderly relatives. “What I say is that grandchildren can bless without baggage,” she explains. And those superpowers can be conveyed with “very simple gestures [like] telling them what you did today or calling them and saying happy birthday, or holding their hand and sitting next to them while watching TV. You can have such an impact just by honoring and reaching out to your own grandparent.”

Grandparents, I tell her, have to reach back. They too can make “very simple gestures” with very large benefits. I drove three of my grandkids to school for 12 years, until they had the lack of consideration to grow up and get their own licenses. Those times together were so special because they were so ordinary. And you get one shot at being a grandparent. No do-overs.

Tom sums up her advice this way: “You won’t know everything. You don’t know what path every person is going to take as they decline. But if people leave this earth and know that they are loved, that makes a huge difference.”
Yes, it does. And not only that. Isabel’s pretty good at threading a needle.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to