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How to Talk to Seniors About Social Distancing & COVID-19
The novel coronavirus can infect anyone, but studies show that older adults—ages 60 and older—are more likely to get seriously sick from it. Like many of us, seniors are also trying to navigate and understand all the recommendations for wearing cloth masks in public places, washing hands frequently, maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, and more.
While older adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, unfortunately, we’re learning that many aren’t taking social distancing and health directives seriously. This generation has lived through many significant threats during their lifetimes—the Cold War, the possibility of nuclear attacks, and more. They may feel that worst-case scenarios did not happen to the country then, and these experiences impact the way they feel now.
If you’re struggling with a senior loved one who’s resisting the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s guidelines for social distancing and other coronavirus precautions, here are a few tips for having effective, respectful conversations with them. Together, you can navigate the new and important conversations necessary to keep them healthy and safe.
Communicate with love, not with control.
Your message should be loud and clear—you are not bringing these conversations up because you want to control or take away their independence. You are doing it because you love and care for them and want them to be around for many more years. Explain how you plan to facilitate and support their social distancing to protect them and keep them healthy and safe. This might include making sure their pantries are well-stocked or arranging for medication deliveries or drop-offs at home.
Your loved one’s fear and anxiety can feel overwhelming right now and cause strong emotions, as may yours. What’s more, they may feel extremely isolated if they live alone. Sometimes just listening is enough to let them know you care and mean well.
Ask questions, and try to understand how they’re feeling.
Do you find yourself arguing with your senior loved ones about what’s safe for them to do? Are they insisting on doing something, even though it puts them at higher risk for infection? Listen carefully, ask questions, and try to understand their motivation. When you have all the information, suggest ways to compromise. For example, if they insist on going to the grocery store because they don’t want to impose on you or anyone else, suggest a grocery delivery option or curbside pickup, if available in your area, or recommend they go during special hours for older shoppers.
Share trustworthy information and resources.
The COVID-19 facts are startling—after age 70, your risk of dying from COVID-19 infection goes up exponentially from less than 1 percent for younger people to as high as 13 percent for adults in their 70s and 80s. Make sure your parents are getting accurate, science-based information like this from direct and trustworthy sources like the CDC or World Health Organization (WHO). Find out where they are getting their information from, as many sources may have downplayed the gravity of the situation and social media posts and updates are often far from accurate. Encourage them to seek out only evidence-based data.
Provide gentle reminders.
If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of memory loss, they may need extra reminders to stay put. In addition to daily check-in calls and frequent reminders about social distancing and hygiene best practices, consider putting up signs around the house, on the refrigerator or front door, to stay at home.
While gathering in large groups is prohibited right now, completely cutting off seniors from social engagement isn’t healthy either. If your loved one is worried about missing out on friendships and social activities and becoming too isolated, look for opportunities for them to engage virtually instead.
Set up a nightly video chat with friends and family. Try games and apps where you can interact online together, like Scrabble Go or online crossword puzzles. Find concerts or movies that are streaming online, then chat about them afterward together. Encourage them to get out and take a walk or try at-home exercise videos to stay active. The National Institute on Aging’s online program “Go 4 Life” has excellent free exercise videos, a downloadable book, online chat groups, and more.
Determine the best person to have the conversation.
Sometimes seniors still see their adult children as kids. If that’s the case with your loved one, perhaps there’s another adult or trusted messenger they will listen to. Think about other people your parent or loved one is comfortable with and trusts, like a sibling, best friend, or pastor. While you might not be the right person to have difficult conversations with your loved one, there is someone out there who can have a valuable discussion with them about changing habits related to the coronavirus.
Ultimately, even if your senior loved ones do not heed your calls for safety and protection, it’s important to continue to offer them your love, respect, and support. Accept that you can only control your own actions and remain connected, open, and available to your loved ones during these difficult times.