En español | Imagine the loved and respected 80-year-old matriarch of a tight-knit clan living in the same neighborhood as her extended family. After serving hundreds of Sunday dinners and doing a thousand after-school pickups while her three teenage grandsons were growing up, Antonia knows they are accustomed to seeing her regularly, going in and out of her small house and helping themselves to snacks in her well-stocked pantry. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made her afraid. She's heard that her happy and carefree grandsons have been playing basketball with their friends without masks on, as if they are immune to the virus. How can she tell them she is worried that they might already be infected without knowing it and could inadvertently make her sick if she allows them to visit her?
It can be hard for close family members to set limits with one another under the best of conditions. In this excruciating period of national health crisis, when relatives of different ages have varying degrees of tolerance for infection risk, it can be harder than ever. Some may prioritize togetherness over caution. Some may interpret prudent safety measures as rejection. No family-loving grandparent wants the guilt of telling her sweet grandchildren to stay away until they've quarantined for a while.
Antonia doesn't want to be apart from her grandsons for month after month. She told her best friend on the phone, “I so miss their big hugs!” But she reads the news reports that the pandemic is mostly affecting Americans over 65. She hopes that her grandsons are reading them, too, and realize that she feels vulnerable. Still, she knows it's time to have a frank talk with them to make sure they understand — and will comply.
How can grandparents like Antonia have a conversation with their grandchildren about setting limits without hurting their feelings? Here are some ideas.
Your sense of safety first
"Safety” seems like a cut-and-dried term, but it can be subjective. I may feel safe driving 10 miles over the speed limit, but you may not. You may feel safe carrying a loaded pistol, but I may not. Even though few of us doubt the lethal nature of the coronavirus for some, there has been debate and confusion about what behaviors are safe and unsafe for particular people, in what states and at what time. Peers, adult children and grandchildren may try to convince you that you are less vulnerable than you imagine. But that's beside the point. You need to communicate to them what you require to feel safe and ask them to defer to your level of concern.
Be sensitive and empathetic but firm
Keeping distance from you to ensure your safety during this pandemic is a loving act. Wanting to be close to you and hug you at any time is a loving sentiment. Proceed from the assumption that your grandchildren love you and are only pressuring you to see them because they miss you terribly. But it is crucial to be explicit. Have a phone conversation with them in which you carefully explain what you are feeling and why — and how, specifically, you would like them to interact with you at this time. Tell them this is as much or more of a loss for you as it is for them. Remind them that you love them and don't fear them but do fear COVID-19 and that, as the old saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
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Maintain the frequency, if not the mode, of contact
There is no way to fully relieve the sense of absence that comes with lack of in-person interaction. But grandparents should take steps to shore up their relationships with their grandchildren under these trying conditions. If you saw your grandchildren weekly before the coronavirus, then make sure you talk with them at least weekly now. The means of contact may be different, but the frequency needn't be. If anything, more effort should be made to somehow connect.
Discuss baby steps toward resuming in-person visits
A sense of safety isn't typically restored in one fell swoop. Once coronavirus cases have greatly waned in your community, then it will be important to have another direct conversation with your grandchildren about how to slowly increase the closeness of your interactions. Try socially distant front-lawn meetings; then front-porch meetings, with masks on; then front-parlor meetings, with masks on. These are gradual steps that grandparents and grandchildren can hash out for revising safety rules, reassuring one another of love, and restoring access to snacks — eventually.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and healthcare consultant, is the co-author of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.