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Creative Alternatives to Family Gatherings During COVID-19

family video chatting on laptop

 Thomas Tolstrup / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • With social distancing guidelines in place, many families are having to find new ways to gather and keep in touch.
  • While more traditional family gatherings may not be possible, finding new, socially distant ways to interact can help loved ones feel close while also staying safe.

Of the many sacrifices we’re all having to make during the new normal of social distancing, one of the most difficult is missing family gatherings. Having to skip birthday parties, grandparent visits, and even funerals definitely adds to the emotional burden of this challenging time—even though we know it’s for the greater good.

When a family reunion or Sunday dinner isn’t in the cards, maybe there’s room for us to reframe these circumstances more positively. Perhaps this time could be an opportunity to connect with family in novel ways.

As we await the return of “regular” life, here are seven alternative ideas for spending time with cherished loved ones from afar.

Plan a Virtual Hangout

Thank goodness for the internet! Though we may be physically distanced from relatives, at least we have the blessing of virtual connection. Use online platforms to your family’s advantage by jumping in on any of the many video chatting tools currently available. Facetime, Google Hangouts, and Zoom all offer the opportunity to hear friendly voices and see friendly faces.

Beyond the nicety of feeling warm fuzzies, video chatting may also help boost mental health—a benefit we could all probably use these days. Research from 2015 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that getting more face-to-face socialization with others was associated with reduced likelihood of depression, especially among older adults. (The study did not address the use of video chat specifically, but its outcomes centered on face-to-face interaction.) 

Create a Family Social Media Group

Online connection triumphs again. If your family members use social media, choose a platform most people are on, and create a landing page for your clan, such as a family Facebook group. In this online space, you can connect through photos, videos, and comment threads.

Need some ideas to get you started? Try sharing favorite photos of get-togethers from years past (or perhaps have a funny photo challenge). Post a thought-provoking question of the day. Start a thread of everyone’s opinions about the best vacations you’ve taken together, or the most embarrassing thing Dad ever did when you were kids.

If events like weddings and baptisms are still taking place on a smaller scale, this is the place to share photos of them, too. You may be surprised at how much laughter and joy can come from reminiscing and reconnecting in this way.

Use the Old-Fashioned Mail

Difficult times can also make us turn to simpler modes of communication. Why not break out your best ballpoint and sit down to write a letter? No one doesn’t like to receive something special in the mail, whether a hand-written card, letter, or hand-drawn pictures from the kids. And, unlike images on a screen, these treasures can be taped up in a visible place to provide ongoing encouragement and sense of connection.

If you’re concerned about contracting the coronavirus through letters or packages, you can put fears to rest. The U.S. Postal Service has offered reassurance that the virus has not spread through the mail. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), though it's possible COVID-19 can spread by a person touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching their face, it's unlikely, since it primarily spreads through close person-to-person contact.

Eat Together (But Separately)

Don’t family gatherings always seem to center around food? Though you may not be able to enjoy a slice of cherry pie at Grandma’s or dig into your brother’s famous guac right now, there are options for eating “together” as a family.

Consider planning a menu (with easily available ingredients) that everyone in the family can make on the same evening. Each individual or nuclear family can contribute a recipe for one course of the meal. There’s comfort and unity to be found in knowing that mom, dad, or your favorite cousins are eating the same meal at the same time as you. When it's time to eat, share photos of your creations on a family group text or consider hopping on Zoom together for a virtual dinner party.

Get Charitable Together

For the foreseeable future, most travel plans have to be nixed. If you and other family members were planning to travel to see each other, perhaps there’s an altruistic use for a portion of the funds you would have spent on flights or car rental.

Ask loved ones if they might be willing to go in on donating to a cause that’s meaningful to you as a family. If a relative has a particular health problem, for example, make a group donation to a foundation that supports research for their condition. Or if you all share a religious belief, donate to a faith-based organization whose work you’d like to support. As a bonus, research has shown that volunteering can improve mental well-being.

Giving to others, with others, during this difficult time has a way of bringing a sense of unity. Not only that, but it can also actually make you happier. A 2017 report from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute found that charitable giving added to life satisfaction for individuals and entire families.

Play Online Games Together 

You may be used to playing online multiplayer games with friends (or even strangers), but there’s no reason family members can’t join in, too. Numerous games, from Scrabble to chess to trivia puzzles, have digital versions—many of which are free. Take family game night from the kitchen table to your laptop or tablet with any of the myriad options available.

Create a Family Drop Box 

For those who have relatives in close proximity, a family dropbox makes a fun activity everyone can look forward to. Each individual or nuclear family begins by placing a box in front of their home. (For more security, choose a box with a lid and put it in a hidden spot.) Then, everyone commits to dropping off something special—perhaps a note, a photo, or some little gift—in each other’s box weekly, daily, or with whatever frequency suits everyone best.

This round-robin of generosity is especially enjoyable for children. Let your kids get in on planning what they’d like to put in relatives’ boxes. Now that many pleasures are limited, it’s amazing how much the anticipation of a surprise can brighten up a lonely day—for both adults and kids.

What This Means For You

In one sense, the circumstances of COVID-19 have made family get-togethers difficult—if not impossible—and it’s OK to grieve this loss. But in another sense, due to technology, connecting with loved ones has never been easier. Try to count this as a blessing, remembering that social distancing is temporary and won’t change the love you have for your family.

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  1. Teo AR, Choi H, Andrea SB, et al. Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression in Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2015;63(10):2014-2022. doi:10.1111/jgs.13667

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How COVID-19 Spreads. Updated September 21, 2020.

  3. Fegan C, Cook S. The therapeutic power of volunteeringAdv Psychiatr Treat. 2014;20(3):217-224. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.113.011890

  4. Mesch D, Osili U, Okten C, Han X, Pactor A, Ackerman J. Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Charitable Giving & Life Satisfaction: Does Gender Matter?. 2017.