Column: This Empty Nester Loves Skype

Video chat helps family, friends stay in touch

Sometime between counting the days before she left for her freshman year of college and predicting she’d not return til Thanksgiving, my daughter apparently decided she just might miss me a little bit. Or maybe she feared my reaction to the empty nest after 28 years of full-time motherhood.

Jo Mathis using Skype, a video chat application.

Jo Mathis using Skype, a video chat application.

In any case, Tori installed a webcam and Skype on my computer so that we can have regular video chats.

This wouldn’t have occurred to me. Though Skype has been around for seven years, my experience with it was mostly spotty audio conference calls that were more irritating than anything.

“Trust me,” Tori said as she clipped the webcam to my monitor. “You’ll love this.”

When we dropped her off at her dorm on Monday, I was once again reminded of one of the best years of my life. (Freedom! Boys! All-you-can eat ice cream!) I hated to leave – not just because we’re very close and I enjoy her company, but because nothing makes a mother happier than seeing her child happy. And I knew she was about to have the time of her life.

That’s why Skype pretty much rocks my world.

No, it’s not quite the same as being in the same room. We won’t be able to push each other around laughing, “I keel you!” or hang out on the couch watching Kathy Griffin.

But it’s close.

Texts and calls and pictures are great. Actually seeing my daughter as we talk is much better. We video chatted once while she was at the student center, where her friends were on either side of the table, and guys were shooting pool behind her. Usually she’s sitting at her desk below her Lil Wayne poster, applying or removing her makeup.

I am unabashedly in love with this application, and encourage anyone else with distant loved ones to try it.

For no charge, Skype offers the ability to make voice or video calls and send instant messages to other Skype users. You can also pay for services such as making calls from a PC to a landline or cell phone, which is why some users are giving up their more costly landlines for Skype accounts.

Thanks to Skype and all the other video chat programs, including gmail voice and video chat, children and spouses of U.S. soldiers stationed overseas can actually see each other when they talk once or twice a week. Grandparents hundreds of miles away can video chat between visits.

Fewer people need to fly across the country to get to a meeting. Teachers use it in the classrooms to interview guest speakers, and connect to other students around the world.

Kan Shao, a grad student at Eastern Michigan University, uses QQ to video chat with his family in China two or three times a week.

“Video chat lets me confirm that my father is in good condition,” he said. “Seeing his face makes me feel safe.”

I read about a family who keeps an eye on their elderly father by keeping the man’s computer turned on to Skype. If he’s in trouble, they’ll know about it. Meanwhile, he feels less isolated.

Oprah Winfrey is a huge Skype supporter who likes to spread money around. Wouldn’t it be great if she made video chats available to nursing homes and assisted living centers, and encouraged volunteers to check in on them via Skype? It’s certainly a more important use of it than featuring yet another guest via Skype – especially when there are so many real live guests in the audience eager to talk.

After all, just because something can be done doesn’t mean there’s a good reason to do it.

Most people now prefer texting over calling, and several people I talked to said they don’t want anyone seeing them in the privacy of their home. (“The horror!”) I can’t imagine video chatting with someone I don’t know fairly well, and feel no need to use it to talk to people I see regularly.

But I would like to get my three out-of-state brothers on Skype so we can stay more closely in touch. Facebook helps, but can’t compare to the immediacy of a video chat.

Here are 25 other ways to use Skype, some of which I intend to try as soon as I finish clearing a corner of Tori’s room for my yoga studio.

An empty nest has its perks.

For the pits, there is Skype.

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer. Her columns appear monthly in The Chronicle.


  1. By MT
    August 29, 2010 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    FYI: The current CEO of Skype is Community High School alum Josh Silverman.

  2. By Jo Mathis
    August 29, 2010 at 8:07 pm | permalink

    I knew those CHS kids are high achievers, but didn’t know that. Thanks, MT.
    Read about Josh Silverman at: [link]

  3. By Stephen Cain
    August 29, 2010 at 8:42 pm | permalink

    Okay, I’m older than the hills, but sometimes I wonder if too much connectivity can be too much. And also, do you really want to know EVERYTHING your kids are doing? We had a rule as we sent our seven children off to college one by one — You cannot come home until Thanksgiving! — and it seems to have worked out okay. They all learned to fly and and all have circled back (after Thanksgiving) for frequent visits. And as for contact, e-mail, the phone, Facebook and in-person visits work just fine (although I’d like to see our son in Hawaii more often).

  4. By jo mathis
    August 29, 2010 at 9:04 pm | permalink

    Steve, Skype your son in Hawaii and I bet you’ll be a convert, too. Especially if there’s a sunset in the background.
    But I hear ya. My daughter’s been at college six days now, and our contacts are becoming fewer, as they should. She needs her space. But she also understood how eager I’d be to hear from her those first few exciting days. Since then, two other daughters – one at school in Ohio and another seven miles away – have downloaded Skype and love it. It’s a kick.

  5. By Carol Fast
    August 30, 2010 at 10:18 am | permalink

    Jo, I couldn’t agree with you more. Skype saved me when my “baby”, Peter, moved to Tokyo 2 years ago. My father-in-law was near to tears when we arranged for him to Skype Peter. At age 84, he had said goodbye to his grandson afraid that he would never see him again. We started out talking almost every day but are now down to every week or so. It’s still much better than snail mail or the monthly “This is costing a mint” phone call that I managed with when I left home.

  6. By Jo Mathis
    August 30, 2010 at 11:04 am | permalink

    Carol, I’m so happy you’re able to see and talk to your son in Japan. And I wish I could have seen your father-in-law’s expression when they were Skyping. There’s a lot of needless communicating going on these days. But video chats between separated loved ones? Awesome.
    And yes, I remember those days of expensive long distance calls. It’s hard to relax and enjoy the conversation when you’re worried about the bill.
    Skype on!

  7. By Jeff Westbrooks
    August 30, 2010 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    I’ve had to work in Augusta, Ga for over three years now and without Skype I don’t think I’d be able to do it. Hopefully, though it looks more and more bleak, there will be jobs back in the Ann Arbor area so I could live with my wife and enjoy my home town.

  8. By Jo Mathis
    August 30, 2010 at 12:36 pm | permalink

    Jeff, your situation is the best use of Skype I’ve heard yet. Do you sometimes actually eat dinner along with your family? I can see both laptops placed at the table as you share your days. Let’s hope you’re back together soon. (Curses to this lousy economy!)
    I’m also glad you’re able to keep up with Ann Arbor via The Chronicle. Few people care more about what’s happening here than Mary and Dave.
    All the best!

  9. By Jeff Westbrooks
    August 30, 2010 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    Unfortunately our computer setups don’t allow this as she uses our home desktop and I just have a room in a house. Also it is important to minimize any chance of spillage so eating around a laptop is kinda risky.

  10. By Cindy Overmyer
    August 31, 2010 at 3:10 pm | permalink

    My family and I had a “Skype Christmas” last year when I was unable to be with them – we opened our gifts together; my nephews watched me put the gift ornaments they made for me right on the Christmas Tree behind me on the screen, and after a break, my folks put the laptop at my place at the table and we had a Christmas dinner! The kids thought the whole thing was great, and we grown-ups enjoyed the day and chit-chat and food prep goings on. My own dinner was much more modest (alas!): perhaps Skype can develop some “smell-o-vision” capacities:-) It was great to see and hear not only my family but their Christmas decor, the kids running around, even the cat prowling in the background (often trying to jump up on table or counter to get to that fabulous turkey!) Much nicer (and cheaper) than a phone call:-)

  11. By Jo Mathis
    August 31, 2010 at 7:40 pm | permalink

    Cindy, how wonderful that a day that could have been lonely was instead family-filled and festive.
    As for the added dimension of scent – it really does seem that anything’s possible now. Just for an hour, wouldn’t you love to fast forward 10 years to get a load of 2020 technology?