Elderly Parents, Adult Children, and COVID-19 — Who’s the Boss? | #covid19 | #kids | #childern

Kids today. They just don’t listen, especially those in their sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Consider Barbara and Seymour Ellin of Boca Raton, Florida, otherwise known as my mother and father. During the COVID-19 lockdown, my brother and I suggested somewhat emphatically that they refrain from having their place cleaned by an outsider. Why risk bringing unnecessary germs into their home?

Our parents, who are in their mid-seventies and early eighties, agreed — or so we thought. Until my dad let it slip that their housekeeper had been coming in every two weeks. Busted!

“We all wore masks, and everyone maintained a 6-foot distance,” my mother said when I asked her about it. “It was fine.”

Maybe so, but my brother and I were appalled (and amused). Had our parents lied to us? Did they understand just how dangerous this virus was? After much deliberation, we grounded them from playing online bridge. As of this writing, they’ve ignored that, too.

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How to Talk to Parents so Parents Will Listen

It’s become somewhat of a running, and exasperated, joke among Generation Xers and Yers, who, in the wake of COVID-19, are parenting up. Nagging. Worrying. Admonishing. Suggesting — nay, insisting — that they Wear Masks, Sanitize Often, Scour Surfaces, and Not Touch Anything Without a Glove, which they must change often. Above all else, they must never, ever put their hands near their faces or eyes unless they’ve rubbed and scrubbed while humming “Moon River” for 20 seconds.

Role reversal between adult children and parents is not a new thing. “One of the things that has driven adult children crazy in maybe forever is when parents won’t do what their adult children think is reasonable,” said Karl Andrew Pillemer, PhD, a gerontologist at Cornell University. “This plays itself out if their parents are living in a large old rambling house and they won’t leave, or they have balance problems and insist on driving.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly put a new twist on it. Since 8 out of 10 deaths in the United States have been in people 65 and older, “adult children have every right to worry,” he said — especially now that lockdown is lifting and many older people think they no longer need to worry. (For more on that see: Subways. My mother wants to ride one).

Lucy Leibowitz, 36, has been giving her mother, Barbara Ballinger, 71, “slightly stern guidelines about how to be careful, mostly going over all the things she hasn’t thought about,” said Leibowitz, a pediatric psychologist in Baltimore. “She had a doctor’s appointment, and I told her to make sure she’s not touching anything, even if wearing gloves. I told her how to take off her gloves in a safe a way.”

Stuart Tracte has spent the past few months shopping for and worrying about his parents, who are divorced. His father has basically listened to him and stayed home. But his 74-year-old mother, who suffers from COPD and has been hospitalized for pneumonia in the past, has gone rogue.

“Until the restrictions came into play, Mom was going out with the girls every day, having dinners and playing golf, and I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’” said Tracte, 44, a photographer in Aventura, Florida. “The course she plays at is at a hotel, so there’s foot traffic in and out of the place. At the same time, she was having her apartment remodeled. Workmen were coming in and out. It was scaring the hell out of me.”

It got to the point where Tracte resorted to tough love. “All I could do was call and yell, ‘I don’t want you to die!’” he said. “I had to be dramatic because reason wasn’t working. My mother’s perspective was, ‘If I’m going to die, I’m going to die, and I want to enjoy my life.’ That’s why I felt it was important to appeal to the emotional side of it.”

Since Florida began easing restrictions in May, his mother has resumed going out with friends, which Tracte discovered though … Facebook. Once again, he warned her to stay in. “I said, ‘They just opened things up this weekend and you’re in the highest risk category!’ She didn’t really have anything to say.”

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Meet the Resistance: Your Parents

Not every parent appreciates the meddling and constant badgering — what Edith Friedheim calls the “infantilization” of older people.

Friedheim, 83, understands why her two daughters have been bugging her. Like Tracte’s mother, Friedheim has COPD, and her kids worry. But though she adores them and appreciates their concern, she also resents it.

“This is a big problem in general for older people and their children,” she said. “Their children suddenly know what’s good for them. Add to it the COVID-19 pandemic, and you really have a problem.”

When the lockdown began, she wanted to fly from Palm Beach, Florida, to New York, where she has an apartment, but her daughters kept telling her not to. So she listened. By the time she decided to come back, children be damned, she couldn’t get a flight. She ended up staying away two months longer than she wanted to.

“I said, ‘I’ve lived a long life and I’m elderly and I’m willing to die of the coronavirus; I’ve made my peace with it,’” she said. “They were behaving without any knowledge at all as to my experience. It’s our experience that leads us to make the decisions we make.”

Margaret Crane feels similarly. Crane, a 73-year-old writer, moved to New York City from St. Louis. She had a “fabulous” six months before COVID hit. Once lockdown began, her three kids started calling regularly. If she didn’t pick up, they worried. This surprised her. “My kids are very independent and do not call me that often, at most once a week,” said Crane. “They were really bossy. They said, ‘We don’t want you going out at all.’ I said, ‘But I need certain things!’ And they said, ‘You’re just going to have to buy them online.’”

On Mother’s Day, she was greeted by six bags of groceries from Whole Foods, courtesy of her daughter, and a chicken pot pie and chocolate chess pie from her youngest son. At first, she was grateful. “I remember thinking in the beginning, ‘This is really nice, my kids are calling so much, I didn’t know they cared so much.’”

But after a while it was not so nice. It wasn’t like she was hugging strangers on the street. “I’m neurotic,” she said. “I wear two masks and gloves. Now it’s just annoying.”

Marc Agronin, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health, gets where Friedheim and Crane are coming from. When the virus first came to light, Dr. Agronin, 55, found himself pestering his parents to “be safe.” Then it occurred to him that they probably had it under control without his help.

“To some extent, I think a lot of us never realized all the strengths our parents had as aging people,” said Agronin. “We’ve kind of frozen them in time and not realized that they’ve continued to develop. We often infantilize them without realizing they might be coping better than we are.”

He believes that younger generations could learn a lot from their elders, many of whom haven’t been as freaked out by the pandemic precisely because of their age. “For someone in their eighties and nineties, they’ve already outlived many of their peers; they already live with the knowledge that there are other ailments that could affect their lives and kill them and this is just another one,” he said. “They often cope better than we imagine. They’ve had experience. They lived through the polio epidemic. They’ve lived through the Cold War. Their brains are more conditioned to get through it.”

He cited the example of “decontamination zones” so many people set up outside their homes where possibly infected shoes, mail, bags, packages, and other sundries were placed before entering the home. Many older people, he noted, didn’t do that — “and it turns out we might not have had to be as strict in the first place,” he said. “In some ways they’re more realistic and practical. Is there more risk with that? Yes. But they’re not the ones running out on the Fort Lauderdale beaches.”

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Finding a Happy Medium Between Concern and Nagging

Pillemer suggests adult children take a page out of the self-help relationship books and pick their battles. If their parents insist on doing the grocery shopping, don’t fight them. But if they want to fly across the country, well, that’s where you can butt in.

“I think the key thing is to ask the parent what they want from the child,” he said. “It’s also the extent to which you think your parents can clearly evaluate the information. I also wonder how they would feel if the kids said, ‘Do what you want, I don’t care.’ Some older people are so frightened they don’t want to leave their house.”

Leibowitz’s mother, Barbara Ballinger, has enjoyed the attention she has received from both Ms. Leibowitz and her other daughter. She loves that they’re “taking charge and issuing orders,” and she’s happy to listen to them. “They want me around longer,” she said.

For the most part, she has been following her daughter’s guidelines. Except when Leibowitz instructed her mother to keep her phone in her bag when she went to the doctor. “Sure enough, she sends me a message: ‘I’m here!’” Leibowitz recalled. “I told her to put it away.”

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