What To Do If You're Worried About Your Grandparents And Coronavirus

COVID-19 disproportionately affects older people, which has many of us worried about our grandparents' health. Here's how to cope with the stress while social distancing.

Roze Rahim, a 24-year-old student, lives in Queens, New York, with her grandmother. As her primary caregiver, all Rahim can think about lately is how her grandma, who already has a host of respiratory issues, might be affected by the coronavirus.

It’s weighing on her grandmother’s mind, too.

“My grandma Shirley watches Ellen DeGeneres every single day, and there is a lot of breaking news happening throughout the show,” she said. “All day she has to sit through news about the virus not affecting younger people as much but being a huge concern for the elderly, and every day she becomes more and more stressed out.”

Recently, Rahim’s parents, who also live with them, started showing symptoms of the virus, so they had to temporarily move into the basement. Now more than ever, her grandma needs reassurance and support.

“I tell her every day I love her and we will get through this together and not to worry too much, that things will improve,” she said. “Her concerns are always about what’s going to happen if she contracts it, will she survive, will they want to keep her alive.”

In those moments, she said, she tries her best to sway her grandmother’s mind away from those concerns.

Rahim’s hardly alone in her worry. Knowing the virus seems to more seriously affect older people has complicated many of our relationships with our grandparents. Italy has experienced the highest number of deaths from the virus, in part because of about 23% of residents are 65 or older, according to The New York Times.

Now is the time to teach your grandparents how to use FaceTime, experts say.
Now is the time to teach your grandparents how to use FaceTime, experts say.

When confronted with those numbers, we’re also confronted with something we usually like to push far out of our minds: our grandparents’ mortality.

“As a culture, we sometimes shield younger people away from worrying about or being too concerned with death and loss,” said Allison Hart, a psychological assistant at WellspaceSF in San Francisco. “The hope is that they will only have to consider it when it’s necessary.”

Hart said this might be the first time some younger people have been asked to consider the day-to-day life of an older person and their role in being responsible for that life ― “and not just any life, but their own family members,” she said.

When things started getting worse earlier this month, Harrison Burchett, a videographer and photographer in Kentucky, took it upon himself to push social distancing on his family members, including his skeptical grandparents, who really just wanted to see their grandkids.

“Some other family members were not happy with my attitude, but I was not about to risk the health of the people I love most in the world,” he said. “My sister was going to visit them, coming from college. I’m sure there’s a good possibility that she wasn’t exposed — but even if the chance is half a percent, it’s not worth the risk when we can prevent that chance altogether.”

For many young people, it’s knowing that you could be an asymptomatic carrier who passes the virus on to your grandparent that’s most troubling. Ryan Nelson-Caine, a school technician in Minnesota, said that’s what he worries about with his grandfather, who’s recovering from chemotherapy.

“I work in a school, a literal Petri dish,” he said. “At this point, we’re mostly holding steady and my grandpa’s staying home. My grandma’s very concerned. She’s a stereotypical Midwestern grandmother, and it’s just killing her to know there’s nothing she can do, but there’s no point risking it.”

There’s a lot out of Nelson-Caine’s control, but he does his small part: limiting his contact with his grandparents (and anyone who may see them, like his parents) and calling them to stay in touch.

Why our worry feels so intense right now.

The worry we’re all feeling right now is actually a certain type of grief called anticipatory grief. It means you grieve the loss of something before it’s even happened, said Therese Mascardo, a psychologist in California who offers online therapy.

“Oftentimes anticipatory grief can be even worse than acute grief because people’s minds often imagine the most catastrophic worst-case scenarios,” she said. “For example, you might picture your older relative dying in a hospital bed alone.”

Understandably, most people didn’t have a mental framework for pandemic problems until this started happening.

“We are in an unprecedented time, and the problems we are facing ― self-isolation, not being able to see older relatives, the fear of infecting them with a potentially deadly virus ― most people haven’t faced these realities until now,” she said. “In many ways, our psyche is not equipped to know how to cope with these kinds of problems.”

Yes, you know your grandparents will die someday, Mascardo said, but usually we imagine them dying due to known causes, such as age-related health complications. COVID-19 is different ― it wasn’t even something you could die of until a few months ago ― and that’s what makes it so unnerving, she said.

How to deal with your worry in a productive way.

As scary as the current situation is, there are ways to channel your concern so you feel less powerless (and maybe even a little more connected to your grandparents, in spite of the physical distance). Here a few ways:

1. Focus on what you can control.

You can’t control how the virus might potentially affect your grandma. You can’t control the people who continue to throw house parties and don’t seem to give a damn about “flattening the curve” of rising coronavirus cases.

That’s out of your hands. Instead of focusing on everything you can’t do, ask yourself what still is in your control, Mascardo said: Could you visit your grandma’s window with a sign of encouragement or send a peppy email to cheer her up? Can you help your grandparents, or others in their position, by volunteering to buy groceries? If they’re in an assisted living facility, can you support their staff by providing meals, sewing masks or writing them a thank-you note?

“Focus on what you can do and be mindful of thoughts you’re giving real estate to in your head,” Mascardo said.

Worry can be a good thing, but not if you're dealing with high levels of stress about COVID-19.
Worry can be a good thing, but not if you're dealing with high levels of stress about COVID-19.

2. Know the difference between good worry and bad worry.

Just like all emotions, worry can be adaptive, motivating us to act quickly and take action in stressful circumstances, Hart said. When we worry, it’s a sign that we care, that we are interested and invested in making sure we do our part.

“Worry is part of the emotional concoction that helps younger people take social distancing action,” she said. “It is partly responsible for helping us rise to the challenge of figuring out what’s in our control. It can be a good thing.”

Worry is less adaptive once we are doing what we can, and yet nothing seems to be enough to calm our alert system.

Once you’ve done your part ― keeping yourself and relatives away from your grandparents, calling frequently ― it’s important to transition to more adaptive mindsets than worry, like acceptance and hope.

“Tell yourself things like, ‘I’ve done all that I can do for now. It’s OK to still care, but now I have to take care of myself,‘” Hart said. “Or maybe it’s ‘I can look forward to calling my grandparents tomorrow and talking with them about ways we can virtually connect.’ Find statements that help you self-soothe and move out of draining emotions.”

3. Lean into your grandparent’s experiences with pandemics and health emergencies.

It’s easy to see your grandparent as a passive actor in this pandemic. They’re part of the population most at risk from COVID-19 and they may have ongoing medical issues that make them seem especially vulnerable.

But they’ve had to be strong before in the face of pandemics and health crises: Maybe your older relative experienced the polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s. Or maybe your grandma remembers family stories about the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans among a staggering 20 million to 50 million people globally.

A nurse checking on a patient at the Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward in Washington during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
A nurse checking on a patient at the Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward in Washington during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Ask your grandparents about these events. Not only will it reassure both of you that global health crises do eventually end, but you can also get advice on how to get through hard times like these.

“I talk about all this frequently with my grandma, who lives next door to me,” said Charlie Freyre, a client account manager from Connecticut. (Of course, he keeps his distance when they talk, but they do have wine nights from across their backyards.)

“My first conversation with her, I asked her something to the effect of ‘Do you ever remember anything like this?’ and she compared this to her childhood experience living through the polio epidemic,” he said. “That’s when it really hit me, just the sheer weight of her life experience and how incredibly valuable that perspective would be in keeping a calm head when the rest of the world is seemingly aflame with panic.”

4. Over-communicate with your older relatives.

This is a time to embrace technology ― even if means walking your Luddite Uncle Bob through using FaceTime.

“If you can’t do that, then talk ― yes, talk ― to each other on the phone,” said Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and the assistant director of campus mental health at Farmingdale State College (SUNY). “Text-based communication is OK but not nearly as personal or comforting for most as talking or video-chatting.”

“I talk to my parents more now than I have in a long time, and not only to get on their case about staying home,” he said. “It’s not only older and compromised people I’m calling, though. I find myself reaching out to and hearing from people who I’ve heard from infrequently over the past several years. I think there’s a chance that COVID-19 will bring us all closer together.”

Beyond that, sharing pictures and videos directly with family members you can’t be close to right now is a great idea.

“If nothing else, when we all make it through this, we’re going to have unrivaled documentary evidence of our resilience and strength through the COVID-19 response,” Owens said.


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