How Kerry Kennedy's Family Has Been Spending Time During the Pandemic: Sing-Alongs, Backgammon and Zoom
"My siblings and nieces and nephews and children are just brilliant about coming up with new ways to communicate with grandma," Kerry says of the family matriarch, Ethel
The Kennedys have been taking creative precautions in an effort to keep 92-year-old matriarch Ethel safe and healthy amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — but that doesn't meant they aren't having some fun, too.
Family sing-alongs, backgammon games and, of course, plenty of Zoom calls have all been on the docket of late.
In a recent interview with PEOPLE, Kerry Kennedy — the daughter of Ethel and the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and who runs the human rights group that bears her dad's name — said that her mom spent the beginning of the pandemic away from the rest of the family in an effort to keep her COVID-free.
"For the first six months, she was in Florida and didn’t see any of her children," says Kerry, 61.
But Ethel wasn't truly alone: Noting that there were plenty of Zoom calls, Kerry says the extended clan still kept in close contact.
"My siblings and nieces and nephews and children are just brilliant about coming up with new ways to communicate with grandma," Kerry says.
Kerry and Ethel finally reunited in the summer, with Kerry posting a photo of them together again.
"My mum, my hero," she captioned the post on Instagram, which showed the two with a plastic sheet between them "for covid safety."
In June, Ethel came up to Cape Cod in Massachusetts and, according to Kerry, "she’s been surrounded by our family ever since."
Still, spending time with Ethel has required a bit of creativity. For example, Kerry's younger brother Chris created makeshift partitions throughout Ethel's residence.
"He put a sheet of plastic between the dining room and living room. And he took a table, and split it in two," Kerry tells PEOPLE. "So she sits at the dining table but she is at her side, and you are at your side, and you can have lunch and dinner with this plastic sheet [in between you]. It’s completely safe and everyone can relax."
The precautions have also served as a way for the family to gather in-person but at a safe distance for one of their favorite hobbies: backgammon.
"There’s a plastic sheet but it’s about waist-high, and there’s a hole and the hole has a sock in it," Kerry explains. "And then you’ve got plastic gloves that go up to your shoulder and you reach your hand through the sock and play backgammon."
Noting that the partitions allow the relatives to "really feel like [they] can be together," Kerry says most of the family time took place during the summer, when more people were filtering in and out of the house.
But even with fewer people physically around Ethel, the Kennedys are as staunch as ever about health protocols, Kerry says.
"Now I just have isolated for ... a long time and got COVID-tested, so I can go be inside and sit with her," she says. "All the family — everybody has to be on the other side of the plastic sheet unless you’ve isolated for two weeks and gotten tested."
In addition to backgammon, the family often participates in group sing-alongs — Ethel's "favorite" thing to do, her daughter says.
"There is such a long list of songs," Kerry says. "We’ve got a songbook. She loves very upbeat, very fun songs. Her specialty is [old Irish folk song] 'There are Faeries in the Bottom of my Garden.' "
Various members of the Kennedy family, including Ethel, could be seen appearing at Thursday's RFK Human Rights Ripple of Hope gala via Zoom.
Kerry's daughters with ex-husband Andrew Cuomo — twins Mariah and Cara, 25, and their sister Michaela, 22 — also appeared at the awards.
The three daughters have been given a front-row seat to pandemic management, temporarily moving into the New York governor's mansion in Albany to to isolate with their dad in the spring and helping out with the COVID response by securing supplies and working with support groups.
Kerry tells PEOPLE she is "so proud" of her girls and the work they've done.
"Mariah has her mask campaign where she worked with 20 New York designers to design masks that would make people feel it was fun and cool and fashion-forward," Kerry says. "Everyone from Michael Kors to Kenneth Cole — a whole litany of designers. I’m so proud of her for that effort and her leadership in it."
Profits from the "Mask Up" PSA campaign, which was announced by Gov. Cuomo in October, were donated to COVID-19 relief charities.
Kerry says Cara spent weeks in her dad's office during the early days of the pandemic, working "14, 15-hour days" trying to track down masks and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
Michaela, meanwhile, led a series of efforts for mental health issues around COVID, her mom says. ("It was a lot," Kerry says. "That was really drinking water through a firehouse.")
Like so many have in the last year, the Kennedys have also weathered a series of tragedies, including the 2019 overdose death of Saoirse Kennedy Hill and the April drownings of Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean and Gideon, McKean's young son.
A virtual memorial held in April for Maeve and Gideon was attended by some 3,000 participants, including members of the family who came together virtually to grieve.