Communication in the time of the coronavirus is fraught for all of us, but none more so than among aging parents in their 80’s and 90’s and their adult offspring. Not only are the different generations of our families living in separate places but they also inhabit different psychological realms.
While fewer old people live with their children than in previous eras, the family is still what matters most to all of us. Despite the ups and downs, the bonds are almost unbreakable. What the adult children of aging parents need to understand is that their role will shift as their parent moves along the continuum from independence to more dependence. Aging parents will almost always find that their children will respond to their needs with love. But it will take effort for both to understand the perspective of the other generation.
The Aging Parents’ Views
Understandably, some of the people in their eighties and nineties that I have talked with tell me they are feeling both scared and sad about how vulnerable they are.
But I have been surprised by the number of them that report they’re not all that worried about getting the virus. The media reports day after day that they are the ones that are most likely to die. They hear that isolation is never good for well-being and it negatively affects both health and longevity. But despite all that, they, themselves, say they just don’t feel all that rattled or unsafe. “My Mom is 94 and in a superb assisted living facility with zero cases of COVID-19.” says Nan Jeffreys who lives in Concord, MA.” She says she's lived through many things and will likely live through this, and I believe her. She is cheery and plucky and says that while bored, she is enjoying her reading, and looking at the many family pictures that abound.
Such fearlessness didn’t make sense to me until I recalled the research on aging brains that has been reported by Laura Carstensen at the Center for Longevity at Stanford. She found that older people, in general, are less worried, angry, and stressed than younger folks. Their brains just evolve that way.
What does bother the eighty and ninety-year-olds is having to stay in their homes and not being able to see their families. They miss the contacts of everyday life – going to the store, visiting with friends. Some of them tell me they are bored, others admit to being lonely. A number have problems with technology -- their computers, their phones, and their iPads and there is no one to help them. They don’t want to bother their adult children who are so busy.
Zacha Rosen worried when his elderly parents’ expressed a desire to continue their daily outings in Sydney, Australia despite the pandemic. But instead of trying to convince them to stop, Zacha changed his behavior. “I made them coffee every day at the start of this, to make them stop visiting their cafe every day. With success.” After that, his parents complied with the stay-home restrictions. “You got to know your audience,” he quips.
I hear from older parents that their offspring are calling far more often than before the virus. Phyllis Knopf, a ninetysomething who lives in a retirement community, tells me her three children have started calling her every day since the beginning of the pandemic. “I know I am lucky,” she says. But most of us, especially those who, like me have sons, feel lucky, too, if we hear from the sons every week with an occasional extra thrown in. I once commented that having four sons in terms of day-to-day communication is about equal to having one daughter.
And the downside of many of these calls is that each one brings more shoulds and oughts. “You should wash your hands more often.” “Wipe down the groceries.” “You ought to let packages sit for two days before opening them.” “Don’t ever venture to a store yourself.” It can be annoying.
My Suggestions to the Eighty and Ninetysomethings
I suggest that parents who feel their adult child may be getting a bit bossy should let go of their annoyance. Hear the worry that lies under that barking. The grown children are terrified, some even panicked, that they may lose their beloved parent. And it is hard to be an effective communicator when you are panicky. Their children’s worry is totally appropriate considering the pandemic and its toll on older people. So say to them, “I really appreciate your concern.” “Talking to you makes me feel better.” And keep reassuring your kids. “I am taking precautions” and “I am careful.”
The Views of Adult Kids With Aging Parents
Meanwhile, what I am hearing from children of eightysomethings is another story. They are worried, so very worried, about their parent’s health. The grown kids feel helpless because they can’t be right there in the same house and because they can’t do much to help them. And of course, they can’t see them or hug them.
“I grounded my mother, says Ingrid Andersen who lives in Mount Joy, PA. “She wanted to go to the store and I put my foot down firmly. This was all via text because she lives in Africa.” What Ingrid surmised was her mother needed permission to stay at home and let her son do the grocery shopping. “We laughed at the role reversal,” Ingrid reveals.
My Suggestions to the Adult Children
What you can do is to be “in touch” with your parents by telephone. Ask questions: What is going on for you today? or this week? What are you worrying about? What are you feeling about the virus? What have you been thinking about? And then listen. Let them talk and ask, “Can you say a bit more about that?” Parents often cut conversations short because they know you are busy and they don’t want to detain you. Listen some more. Then be sure to tell them, “You are really important to me.” And, “You matter to me.”
Many families have started having meetings on Zoom since March mastering new ways of communications overnight. Seeing each others’ faces brings joy across the generations. It is reassuring to everyone.