Many people have elderly parents, grandparents or neighbours who are part of the older demographic hit hardest by coronavirus. But what if they prefer to ignore the risks and don’t want to stay in?
As a teenager in the rural US state of Maine, Karen Swallow Prior used to sneak out at night so she could see her friends. Now Prior, an English professor, tries to make sure that her parents, who are both in their 80s, don’t try to slip away and head into town themselves.
The irony is not lost on Prior, 55, who lives next door to her mother and father in Amherst, Virginia. Like many others who have elderly parents, she is doing her best to keep them safe from coronavirus – even when they seem sceptical about the dangers.
People of all ages can be infected by the virus. But it is especially dangerous for older people. Less than 1% of patients under the age of 50 died with the coronavirus disease in China, according to the New York Times. But it was fatal for nearly 15% of those who were over the age of 80.
Still, many older adults in the US seem somewhat blasé about the disease. Most of those who are over 60 say that they are not worried about dying from it, according to a Harris Poll.
Prior says that her mother seemed a bit flippant about the disease, saying that she never got the flu. So Prior had “the talk”, as she put it, with her mother and her father several days ago. She told them about the danger of the virus and explained the recommendations from health experts and those who specialise in infectious diseases – elderly people should stay home.
Prior’s parents said they understood the risks and would be cautious. Later, though, Prior’s husband told her that he had seen her parents heading into town.
“So I was looking out the window to see if they’d gotten home,” Prior says. “The dogs were barking.” They were all anxious. When her parents returned, she explained the risks again, and they promised they’d stay put.
That conversation Prior had with her parents is being repeated the world over by adults doing their best to convince their older loved ones to isolate themselves and to take other precautions against the disease.
Even routine trips to the store, visits with friends or a meeting with an accountant, as Prior’s parents had done during their outing in town, increases the risk of infection.
Sarah Marshall, a 31-year-old podcast co-host, says that she has been trying to protect her parents as much as she can. She was recently visiting her mother near Portland, and she reluctantly agreed to take her on a trip with her to a grocery store.
As it turned out, the place was packed with panic shoppers, and Marshall wished that her 71-year-old mother had not come.
“We drove home, and I screamed at her like she used to scream at me when I was a child,” says Marshall. She says that she is now forging a new relationship with her parents, and she describes her current role – the disciplinarian – in bittersweet terms.
Speaking on the phone at her parent’s house, Marshall said that she was looking out the window at their back yard. She saw her parents with their dog, Beau, and one of their friends, “appropriately social distancing”, sitting more than six feet from each other.
“It’s like my parents have a play date in the yard, and I’m the parent,” she says.
As she and others know, their parents consume the news in a different manner and may be slow to realise the extent of the pandemic and how it affects them directly. Sometimes they are not following the news as closely.
“The urgency hasn’t hit them yet,” says Tavae Samuelu who lives with her parents in Long Beach, California. In some cases, the older parents have been downplaying the severity of the crisis.
Dianne Anderson, 34, a writer in Minneapolis, says her father, 68, a teacher who lives in South Dakota, was initially sceptical about the health warnings. “He said: ‘Oh, well, I’ll be fine.'” Then she spoke with him on the phone: “When I say something’s a big deal, he knows to trust me and to look into it.” Now, she says, he is taking precautions.
For the parents, too, the experience of learning from their children has been chastening. They understand the concerns their children have, and they try to follow their advice and the public-health guidelines. But still they chafe at the restrictions.
Dennis Horn, a 69-year-old lawyer in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says that recently he had breakfast with friends in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, and then his son found out. “My son just exploded,” he says. “He let me have it.”
Horn says that he sometimes feels nostalgic for the way things used to be. “Remember the days when kids took direction from their parents?” he says, wistfully.
Still Horn says that he has been trying to hunker down. He knows that his son is watching out for him – just as he once did for him.