What to do when grandparents want to visit during the COVID-19 crisis

May 26, 2020

La’shea F.’s preschooler hasn’t hugged her grandparents or great-grandparents in seven weeks due to COVID-19. 

“The closest we have gotten to my grandparents is talking to them for a few minutes from my car in their driveway while they stand on the front porch,” says La’shea, a consultant in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, they used to see each other at least once a week. But as the virus spread and the risks became clear, La’shea has chosen to keep her distance to protect her grandparents from getting sick. 

She’s far from alone. Families all across the U.S. and elsewhere are practicing social distancing to protect loved ones — and themselves — from COVID-19. But telling grandparents they can’t come visit for birthdays or holidays can be a tough conversation to navigate. 

Is it safe for families to get together while practicing social distancing? 

Social distancing — sometimes also called physical distancing — is when people stay away from others to limit the chance of getting sick or spreading a disease. This generally includes staying home as much as possible and keeping at least six feet away from those outside the household, including family members who don’t live with you.  

Without an effective vaccine or treatment against COVID-19, health officials say social distancing has so far been our best defense against the virus, especially for older adults who are more likely to get seriously sick or die from the disease. 

The novel coronavirus spreads from person to person, presumably through respiratory droplets like when you cough or talk loudly. This could potentially happen even if someone doesn’t feel or look ill, which is why it’s not enough to stay home just when you’re sick. You should keep your distance even if you feel healthy, says Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, an epidemiologist and consultant in San Antonio.

“Every time one person … meets with another, they increase their exposure [to the virus],” Rohr-Allegrini says. “So even if one person meets one person alone, if they then meet a second person alone later, they’ve now been potentially exposed twice” and doubled their chances to get infected with the virus or pass it along. 

For older adults and those with certain medical conditions, like diabetes or heart issues, that exposure could mean being hospitalized or even dying from COVID-19. 

So until your local health officials say it’s OK, Rohr-Allegrini says families should avoid getting together, even in small groups. 

What can you say when grandparents want to visit?

When La’shea told her grandmother she couldn’t visit like she used to, she says her grandmother didn’t get it at first. 

“She’s a black woman who grew up in the Jim Crow south, so not much frightens her,” La’shea says. “Initially, she didn’t think COVID-19 was worth all the fuss.” Her grandmother eventually came around, but it’s still been hard to miss events like Easter Sunday, a long-standing tradition in their family. 

Jennie Steinberg — a licensed marriage and family therapist — says many of her clients at Through the Woods Therapy Center in Los Angeles are having a tough time explaining to elderly relatives why they can’t come to visit. She has a few key tips she says has helped her clients navigate those conversations.  

Put feelings first. 

“Someone who is having big feelings isn't in a position to be receptive to explanations that are grounded in logic,” Steinberg says. Before you use phrases like “flatten the curve” or talk about risk, she recommends families start by acknowledging and validating what they’re feeling. 

You could say something like “I feel really sad that we can't come over and that you can't see your grandchildren. I'm upset about this too. This is a really hard time.” 

Let them know you’re on their side. 

You might refuse their request to come to visit or send the kids over, but that doesn’t mean you’re against them. Try not to get frustrated if they keep asking. Instead, Steinberg suggests reiterating that you’re on the same page emotionally by saying something like, “I really wish things were different, too. I miss you a lot. I hate that things are the way they are, but we need to keep everyone safe.” 

Invoke authority figures. 

Many medical experts and government officials say older adults should keep their distance — at least for now — to avoid getting (or spreading) the new coronavirus. If your own feelings and thoughts on physical distancing aren’t enough to satisfy your loved one, try pointing to expert guidance or local stay-at-home orders by saying, “This is what doctors and scientists are saying we should do.”  

Understand where they’re coming from. 

Your parents or grandparents might see things from a different perspective. If you have young kids at home, you might be thinking about how you want to do what you can to help your parents and grandparents stay healthy for years to come, while elderly adults might be focusing on enjoying what time they have left. If that’s the case, what persuaded you to practice physical distancing might not be what’s needed to persuade them.

Instead, Steinberg recommends taking a minute to think about things from their point of view and appealing to that perspective. Try saying, “I know you don’t want to lose out on this time with the kids right now. Let’s think of some ways you can still be a part of their lives while also keeping everyone safe and healthy.” 

What are some alternatives to get together with family during the COVID-19 crisis? 

Even if you can’t physically be present with relatives, you can (and should!) stay connected. 

“Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” says Stephanie Moir, director and bilingual licensed mental health counselor. “It means we have to come up with new, fun and creative ways to stay in touch.” 

This includes activities like: 

  • Talking on the phone or over videoconferencing. 

  • Having the kids play in the yard while grandparents watch from their car or window. 

  • Reading bedtime stories together over the phone. 

  • Hosting virtual family meals or game nights, using services like Zoom. 

  • Sending photos over email, text or cloud services.

“It’s hard to not walk up to my family members and give them a big hug and tell them it’s going to be all right,” says Mary Koczan in Pittsburgh. “But at this moment, this is what’s best for everyone to stay safe and healthy.”

When will it be safe for families to gather?

Cities across the U.S. are reopening businesses and allowing people to go back to work, Rohr-Allegrini says, but even as stay-at-home orders lift, it could be a while before it will be safe for families to physically get together again. 

Different communities will have different guidelines for deciding when it will be OK to resume gatherings, she says. The number of new COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations might need to drop below a certain level, for example. And relaxing social distancing guidelines might be more like a dial than a light switch — where smaller groups are given the OK to gather, but older adults and other individuals at high risk might still be encouraged to stay home and keep their distance from others.

Until then, she says families should continue to find alternative ways to stay in touch.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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