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What to Do When an Older Loved One Resists Covid-19 Restrictions

Gentle communication and understanding can make inroads.

A woman video chatting with her aging parents.

Lisa Weitzman, LISW-S, is the WeCare Manager of Business Development at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

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.”

How can you approach an older loved one who does not adhere to Covid-19 restrictions?

If you find yourself in this situation, you might try the following to help ease stress and facilitate communication:

· Keep in mind that you are not your loved one’s parent. Older adults are not children or petulant teenagers. Even if you disagree with their choices, they have the right to make them for themselves. You are the adult child, and your parent doesn’t want you to tell him or her what to do.

· Consider that people everywhere are experiencing feelings of loss as a result of the pandemic. Even though your loved one may not be open about it, he or she may feel a loss of freedom and autonomy. Mourning may be masquerading as resistance.

· Let your loved one know you understand he or she may be feeling anxiety as a result of so much uncertainty these days. Look for positive ways to help change the rhythm of daily life, 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. Remember that you’re expecting your loved one to navigate an ever-changing and unpredictable world without the tools upon which they normally rely.

· Understand that, for your loved one, the cost of social isolation may feel greater than the risk of contracting Covid-19.

· Show your loved one ways to stay engaged with friends and family virtually, or in places where it’s possible to maintain social distancing. It’s important for your loved one to continue to be physically and mentally active.

· Personalize your request that your loved one remain home or socially distance. Remind him or her that doing so will benefit other family members, friends and acquaintances.

· Avoid getting lost in facts. Emphasize activities that ARE possible, instead of those that are not.

· Convey empathy and affection, and don’t judge. Be clear that everything you’re doing is out of love. 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.)

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· Discuss how the pandemic has affected you, what actions you’ve chosen to take, and what your reasons are.

To learn more about ways to cope as a caregiver during this challenging time, and how to better help both your loved one and yourself, check out this guide.

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