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Why Won’t My Parents Just Stay Home?: Older Adults and COVID-19 Restrictions

By Lisa Weitzman | 05/18/2020

A caregiver and older adult wearing protective masks

My dad is 83. Vital, full of energy and young at heart, he is a retired physician who still spends hours each day reading medical journals in preparation for returning to his classroom as an instructor when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. Thanks to a recent cancer diagnosis, my dad is also immuno-compromised. My mom, a spry 80-year-old-woman, is his true life partner, and together they have aged with grace and dignity, always finding a way to savor each day. Ask them, and they will quickly tell you that COVID-19 has not changed their lives at all. If only this statement weren’t so true…

Fiercely proud of their capabilities, Mom and Dad have almost always refused my offers of assistance. COVID-19, along with the accompanying shelter-in-place orders in our state, is not about to change this paradigm. Off they go on their weekly jaunts to the grocery store, the greenhouse to buy spring flowers and the bank to handle their transactions. As they casually relate after each outing whom they met along the way, I feel my patience running thin. How, I wonder, can a physician and his wife be so nonchalant with their health in the face of this unprecedented risk? Why can’t they see themselves as poster children for COVID’s most-wanted list?

It turns out my mom and dad aren’t so unusual in their response to the pandemic. In fact, older adults as an age group have been particularly resistant to changing their behaviors. So often faced with age-related limitations on what they can do, they fight back against what others tell them to do, even if it is in their best interest (EJ Dickson, Why Don’t More Boomers Care About Coronovirus, RollingStone, 3/18/20). Moreover, at the end of the day, they do not see themselves as high-risk because they simply do not perceive themselves as “old.”

What can we do if our older loved ones resist COVID-19 restrictions?

If this scenario sounds familiar to us, what approaches might we use to help alleviate some of the stress for both ourselves and our older loved ones? We can:

  • Try to remember that our older loved ones are not our children or even our petulant teenagers. They still have the right to make decisions on their own behalf, no matter how poor they may be. As their adult children, they still don’t want us to be their disciplinarian.
  • Reflect on the sense of loss that everyone is feeling during these challenging times. Whether they want to admit it or not, the confines imposed by COVID-19 represent a significant loss of their freedom and independence, too; their resistance may be their form of mourning.
  • Acknowledge the anxiety they may be experiencing during these uncertain times and help them to find a new rhythm for their daily lives. For many older adults, the predictable structure of their days is what gives them purpose and meaning and helps them cope with a reality which may feel overwhelming. Now we are asking them to navigate a world in which nothing is predictable and without the tools upon which they normally rely.
  • Recognize that, for them, the cost of social isolation may seem even higher than the chance of contracting the virus.
  • Encourage them to remain engaged with friends and family through technology or in situations that allow them to keep a safe distance, and help them remain physically and mentally active.
  • Make our request for them to stay home or socially distance personal and relatable: Help them to understand that changing their own behavior will benefit someone whom they know or a group of people for whom they care.
  • Try not to drown them in facts. We can instead help them to identify something they CAN do rather than just focus on what they cannot.
  • Approach our older loves ones with empathy, affection and with a sense of nonjudgement. We should show them that we have their best interests in mind. As writer Joe Pinsker said in an article for The Atlantic, “People are generally more open to doing things they previously resisted when they feel cared about and understood” (Joe Pinsker, What Do You Tell Someone Who Still Won’t Stay Home?” The Atlantic, 3/19/20.)
  • Share with them how the virus has impacted our lives, what we are doing as a result, and why we have made these choices.

For more information on how to cope with this difficult time as a caregiver, check out this guide of ways to care for a loved one and practice self-care during the pandemic.

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