Talking to elderly parents about Coronavirus

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With graphs and data indicating higher morbidity rates for COVID-19 amongst the elderly, many people are getting anxious about their parents and relatives. It’s not surprising that many older people are resisting the idea of social distancing.  When the penny drops that this means their grandchildren too, their reason and purpose, and why they still love life so much, is extinguished in an upending moment of painful realisation. Beyond this, if they’ve always had coffee with a friend every Tuesday, they won’t see a reason to change, especially if they’re lucky enough to be in good health. Any conversation you have should be tempered by the fact that they see the world differently to you. Having been through much in their lives, they may just think this is yet another temporary obstacle to get over and it will pass.


Too much information

One of the reasons your parents may not be taking this outbreak seriously is that they watch the news and hear that it affects ‘elderly and vulnerable people.’ The problem is that just as you might not self-identify as middle-aged, they don’t see themselves in the category. To make things more difficult, there’s just a tsunami of coverage on COVID-19 which is more likely to make them switch off.

It’s a discussion not a dictatorship

Going in with your own anxieties is understandable but it’s not useful. Leave them at the door. It might be worth both of you turning to a neutral third party. By this we mean expert information from government services or professional psychological expertise. Show them some of the reputable advice sheets and use these to initiate a discussion. Ask them what they think about the situation and give them a chance to air their point of view. It’s the kind of approach that doctors take with elderly patients (many of whom don’t listen to their doctor anyway). Realise you’re up against years of ingrained habits. Be calm in your approach and be prepared for them to ignore everything you say… several times.

Help them make a plan

Getting practical may be the best thing you can do. Discuss their needs and activities and see if anything can be done differently. Organise for things to get delivered like newspapers and groceries or do it for them. Most importantly remind them of personal hygiene measures like washing their hands properly, not touching their nose, mouth or eyes. Once again it might be helpful to use a printed official advice sheet as there is slightly more chance, they may eventually pay attention to something from the government. You don’t want them to feel like they’re powerless and nannying them is going to do exactly that.


Come from a place of love, not control

Let them know you love them and understand this is a big change, but you’d hate for them to get sick and you are just trying to make sure they’re safe. And remember how you felt when they told you the same thing several times as a child. It didn’t work, did it? Sometimes, and poignantly in the words of Kenny Rogers still echoing in our ears, you just have to know when to fold, and walk away. Even if your parents won’t observe social distancing, remind them they have your respect, love, and support. And of course, as it it needs saying, commit to staying connected.


Sometimes, despite all the enlightened navigation you might attempt on this sensitive issue, it still goes awry. That’s fine, that’s where we can potentially help.  Because, that’s what we do.


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