5 Tips to Help You Talk to Your Older Parents About Social Distancing

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Speaking with older parents about the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging, but experts say following a few simple tips can make a big difference. Getty Images
  • Getting older parents to understand the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may be challenging for some people.
  • If your parent is less likely to listen to your advice, having another person your parent trusts speak with them, such as a family friend, sibling, or pastor, may be more effective.
  • Make sure parents are getting correct, science-based information from direct, trustworthy sources like the CDC.

Older adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source. Yet many older adults aren’t taking social distancing and hygiene directives seriously.

To many parents’ annoyance and their children’s frustration, this has led to stressful conversations where children urge — some may say chide — their parents to comply.

If your parent or grandparent is resisting the CDC’s advice on coronavirus precautions, here are five tips that can help you have an effective and respectful conversation with them.

1. Make sure you’re the right person for this conversation

It’s the nature of the child-parent relationship that a child — no matter their age — might not be the right person for a conversation with parents about changing habits related to the new coronavirus, according to Jenn Leiferman, PhD, director of the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center and associate professor of community and behavioral health at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“Sometimes seniors still see their adult children as kids. If that is the case, I’d encourage the adult children to figure out who that trusted messenger is for that parent that they’ll listen to.”

Think about people your parent is comfortable with and trusts, such as a family friend, sibling, or pastor.

2. Come from a place of love — not control

“Make it front and center in your communication that your reason for bringing this up and wanting your parents to change their behavior is your love for them and your desire to enjoy them for many years to come. It is easy for this conversation to feel like it’s about control. Do everything you can to clarify that it’s about love — not control,” recommended Dr. Alexandra Stockwell, a physician turned relationship expert and founder of Calm in Chaos.

3. Ask a lot of questions

“Any communication with a parent who is not following CDC guidelines should begin with respect and curiosity. Righteousness and condescension will not work. No matter how right an adult child thinks they are, a fully functional parent will not be inspired by that,” Stockwell explained.

Ask your parent questions to really understand what’s driving their behavior — and listen to their answers. Once you hear where your parent is coming from, mirror it back to them verbally to show them that you understand where they’re coming from.

“Oftentimes we can help people change their behavior if we figure out what’s driving them. Then you can help the parent identify and find ways to change their own behavior — different from the adult child telling them what to do,” Leiferman suggested.

 4. Share information from trustworthy sources

Find out where your parents are getting their information from. In many families, the older generation watches sources that have downplayed the pandemic and stated that measures like mandated closures and social distancing are overblown or unnecessary.

Make sure parents are getting correct, science-based information from direct, trustworthy sources like the CDC.

5. Accept that you can only control you

In the end, even if your parents aren’t heeding your calls to protect themselves against COVID-19, Leiferman urges children to offer parents respect, love, and support.

Connectedness is essential for older adults during this time, so teach your parents new ways to connect — and commit to staying connected.

Why aren’t some older adults taking the new coronavirus seriously?

Boomers have lived through many significant threats during their lives: the possibility of nuclear attacks, the Cold War, and the Cuban missile crisis.

“This generation has lived through many different moments in time that were riddled with anxiety, highly stressful, and human extinction was on the line. In every one of those instances, the worst-case scenario did not play out for our country as a whole. It is understandable that they would feel that way now as well,” Stockwell explained.

These experiences have also made some boomers feel like they have “earned the right to do as they please as long as their bodies permit,” Stockwell added.

And many boomers are still healthy, fit, and active — causing them to not identify as old, and therefore believe they aren’t at heightened risk if they were to contract COVID-19.

“Some boomers lose sight of their chronological age and just think about how fit they are and how great they feel. They just don’t see themselves as high risk,” said Leiferman.

Leiferman also pointed out that it’s understandable that many people — but especially older adults — are resistant to skipping their daily activities in order to stay inside.

“Humans like routine and seniors especially like routine,” Leiferman added. Routines bring comfort and a sense of normalcy.

“What we’re asked with the message of social distancing is for them to change their routine. [The response] is often coupled with feelings of uneasiness and uncomfortableness,” Leiferman said.

That leaves older adults weighing two things that largely affect their quality of life: staying inside to decrease their risk of exposure and not feeling well being out of their routine.

The potentially negative consequences of quarantine aren’t trivial for older adults’ physical and mental health.

“There is the risk of exposure with COVID-19, but then on the other side, there is the risk of increasing isolation and loneliness, which is very high in seniors. Loneliness puts seniors at higher risk for mental illnesses, such as depression and suicide,” Leiferman told Healthline.

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