How to Snap Your Parents Out of Their Coronavirus Denial
So many older people are ignoring the advice to stay put. How can you finally get through to them?
“Don’t you dare,” I found myself saying, my voice escalating. “Do you know how worried we are? You listen to me, do you understand?”
I was not speaking with my rebellious teen, or any child, for that matter. I was, in fact, chastising my mother, a 76-year-old grown adult who seemingly refused to adhere to health officials’ orders: Older adults are the most vulnerable to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and should therefore “stay at home as much as possible.”
Instead, she was making plans to gather her siblings and relatives for a family get-together at a restaurant. All I could envision were germ-infused grandchildren hugging her body or my cousins spreading whatever they picked up on buses and trains.
I was furious. But more than that, utterly frustrated that I wasn’t near her and therefore unable to shackle her to the living room couch.
“Don’t worry so much,” my mom said. “Relax. I can go here and there.”
This drove me into a state of rage. It’s as if we were living in two realities: one in which Covid-19 was shutting down entire countries and one in which my mother can socialize freely. I started shouting, and before I knew it, I lost my cool and hung up.
It was the first time, in my entire life, that I hung up on my mother.
It’s been a whole week like this, in which you’d think my siblings and I were dismantling a nuclear bomb each time my mom wanted to venture to the supermarket. And I am not the only one who has seen their emotions run rampant as the pandemic dominates headlines. Many children are just as frustrated by the inability to control, let alone reason with parents who seem intent on going about their day.
Sierra Baldwin, 29, of Denver, Colorado, found herself constantly arguing and pleading with her parents, who live in Oregon. Her father, who has only one lung, lives within just five miles of those who tested positive. Despite her father being at high risk, he and Baldwin’s mother went on an international trip to Whistler, British Columbia.
She was grabbing a pal to travel to Reno and play slot machines. “She argues that she wasn’t going on the weekend, so it wouldn’t be as bad.”
“My dad’s wording was, ‘I haven’t had a vacation in a long time. I don’t want to live my life in fear, blah, blah, blah,’” Baldwin recounts. “They think, ‘We’ll see what happens, and if it gets bad, then we’ll think of a plan.’… It’s spreading rapidly, and I just don’t think my parents understand.”
Russell Hyken, a family therapist in Park City, Utah, says baby boomers have lived through it all: SARS, Hong Kong flu, swine flu, you name it. And as such, some might not be as sensitive to the media frenzy. “At the end of the day, nothing bad really happened [to them], so they’re more willing to violate health risks,” he explains. “There’s this mentality of ‘Been there, done that. I’m not going to let this affect my life.’”
Of course, this proves challenging with an age group that is now traveling widely during their retirement. Linda O’Connor, 32, of Foster City, California, is the only child of her 70-year old widowed mom, who had some surprising news this week: She was grabbing a pal to travel to Reno and play slot machines. “I was shocked,” says O’Connor, whose mother had a less than reassuring excuse. “She argues that she wasn’t going on the weekend, so it wouldn’t be as bad.”
O’Connor reports that her mother, who is quite active, doesn’t consider herself “elderly” and therefore might not take precautions as seriously. Instead, O’Connor resorted to sending her mother regular reminders to wash her hands after a busy day pulling levers. “I don’t want to tell her how to live her life,” O’Connor says.
Boomers, a generation built on extreme individualism and personal freedom, might be some of the most difficult to restrain at this time. This group is aging far differently than generations before. They exercise, eat well, and constantly travel. Boomers simply don’t view themselves as old or frail or potentially in danger. They’re living longer and healthier — and with that comes a sense of invincibility.
A slew of Twitter responses attest to aging parents who believe they’re either too healthy to get sick or take aim at “media hype.” One person’s parent said the weather is too nice in Florida for the virus to hit. Another reported that her mother, a Stage 4 cancer patient, still intends to sail on the Queen Mary this summer. “I think it’s frustration over having her bucket list plans threatened,” she wrote.
“They feel those [bad] things aren’t going to come their way,” says Hyken, noting that some are simply in denial. “And they feel like they should be able to do what they want.”
Strategies that work
Baldwin bombarded her family group chat with the latest CDC alerts and news reports, to no avail. Her parents continued to go to work, even though her mother works in a hospital. At this point, her father is avoiding her phone calls. “I’ve gone from gentle to quite hostile,” she explains. “I don’t want to say I’ve been rude, but sending information and nudges [hasn’t been working], so I’m getting a little bit more aggressive in conveying how genuinely concerned I am.”
Much of Baldwin’s frustration lies in the fact that she doesn’t live near her parents, making her feel all the more helpless. She feels distracted during the workday and emotionally charged whenever she’s discussing the issue with family members. “All I do is follow the news,” Baldwin says.
Of course, this reversal of parenting — in which children are advising their elders — can prove tricky. (“Most children can’t tell their parents what to do,” Hyken concedes.) The key is to express concerns with kindness and respect, not let anxiety overwhelm what should be a discussion and not a mandate. In fact, it should all be communicated as clearly and nonemotionally as possible.
“Get your head clear before you interact,” advises Carrie Contey, a family therapy expert. “If you’re not balanced, you’re going to get toppled by fear.” In addition, if phone calls often devolve into tears or screaming matches, take a different approach: Send an email or text instead.
Hyken also recommends carefully wording your suggestions. For example, one shouldn’t instruct: “You need to get inside, because you might get sick.” The word “you” points a verbal finger. Instead, he suggests shifting it to yourself: “I am really concerned you might get sick if you go to this big event, and it would make me really happy if you didn’t.” “We want to appeal to their sense of humanity, kindness, and maybe even a little guilt to not upset their children,” he says.
Another strategy is to engage in a question-and-answer dialogue format that makes the parent consider next steps, Hyken says. Ask: “If you travel, have you thought about how you’re going to protect yourself? If you get sick, have you considered what are going to do about that?”
Family and marriage therapist George James advises acknowledging parents’ needs before offering suitable alternatives. Basically, try to work within their independence. You can say, “We want you to be safe and have fun, but can you just wait a few weeks until this calms down?” And if that doesn’t work, maybe try speaking to their extreme individualism: “If you get sick, you’re gonna have to move in with us, and that will really restrict your autonomy.”
“We want to appeal to their sense of humanity, kindness, and maybe even a little guilt to not upset their children.”
At the end of the day, however, no matter which approach kids take, they need to trust parents to make the right decisions. Voice your opinion and don’t dwell on it, Hyken advises. Children should constructively express their concerns and then try to minimize their own fears as much as possible.
“We don’t have control over this or what anybody else is doing, but we do have the ability to get away from the computer and stop reading every article,” says Contey, who recommends putting practices in place to reign in emotions. That means disconnecting and being thoughtful about how you consume information, as well as making time for self-care, be it meditation or even just taking a walk outside.
I tried every tactic: threats, reason, even bribery. In the end, only one tactic worked on my Jewish mother — guilt. I appealed to my mother’s sense of compassion when I told her I was unable to concentrate at work by the mere thought of her traveling. It did the trick: Within 10 minutes, she alerted the entire family she had canceled her plans. But then she had her own demands.
“Please don’t go to synagogue or any public spaces this weekend,” she replied. “I forbid you to go. I listened to your order. Now it’s your turn.”