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How to Talk to Aging Parents About Coronavirus Without Pissing Them Off

We're all stepping into new roles here.

A few weeks ago, I called my parents to see how they were holding up during this strange time of coronavirus, quarantine, and social distancing. They live just outside of New York, a few miles north of the COVID-19 epicenter. My mom and dad both explained that they’d just gotten back from the grocery store because they’d forgotten a few things.

“Hello,” they said, harmonizing over the speakerphone. “You there?” I was there. I was just taking a few moments to compose myself and not scream so loud that the receiver blew. A rage coursed through my veins like an electric storm; I felt like, at any moment, it would transfer through the device in my hand and give them a light shock.

That wouldn’t have been the worst. I wanted to shock them. I wanted to yell at them for not only putting themselves but also everyone around them in jeopardy. My dad is in his mid 70s, not only has a history of pneumonia but underwent invasive heart surgery a few years ago. My mom, while otherwise healthy, is also in her 70s. Both of them constitute what would be in the COVID-19 danger zone. How could they be so reckless? I thought.

As the news reports became more and more dire, my parents, who are both logical, thoughtful people, wisened up and took more precaution. And, I must admit, I was overreacting a little. They can go to the grocery store if they do so with precaution. The casual way they mentioned it was what set me off internally. I kept it together, but it was certainly tough. I wanted them to take it all seriously and act as though that’s what they’re doing. I needed to be reassured and convinced that they were. I was a worried parent.

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I’m certainly not alone in this sort of feeling. In a survey of Fatherly readers, a large percentage said that convincing their parents to fall in step with the social distancing, hand-washing, face mask-wearing, and all other measures to keep themselves safe and #flattenthecurve either took some pestering or was, to put it lightly, difficult. Some friends of mine nodded their heads in agreement; others said they didn’t have any problems. All of us, however, expressed concern about the various sides of the die that might be cast.

Regardless of our parent’s willingness to fall in step with the demands of our current state of affairs, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us in our thirties and forties to confront something together that we would’ve otherwise done on a much different timeline: caring for our aging mothers and fathers and thus becoming parents-of-sort to them ourselves. It’s a change of roles that, one day, we all would need to face. But now we’re a chorus of voices telling our parents that they’re grounded, to be careful when they go outside, and why don’t you call more? We knew it would happen. Who knew it would be a global pandemic that caused it?

“I really do think this is an unprecedented moment because everyone is transforming into this role together,” says Dr. Jane Wolf Frances, a psychotherapist, attorney, and coach, who runs ParentingOurParents and is the author of the book Parenting Our Parents: Transforming the Challenge Into a Journey of Love. “While difficult, this is an opportunity to care for the people who cared for us. Maybe to give back, maybe to share some things we’ve learned as parents to children of our own, and do a better job.”

It certainly is difficult. And it is a great opportunity to step up in a new way. But how do we get through to our parents during this situation without coming off as patronizing, pandering, or making them feel as though they have zero control? It’s a tricky tightrope walk to make.

Frances understands that these are strange new waters for anyone, but that the coronavirus pandemic adds a variety of new waves. After all, we’re all living in this confusion, with vague information, and mandated limitations on going out without certain precautions. We can’t visit one another. Hell, we can’t go to the store to buy a pack of gum without wondering if the decision might infect us or our family. That tension is contagious.

“All of this adds a lot of stress to the whole notion of parenting parents and getting involved in something that is quite challenging in the first place,” says Frances. But, she stresses, the fact remains that rising to the challenge is paramount. That requires accepting it. “The first things that really go on as we look to do something exciting and challenging and valuable with this time we’ve been thrust into is to notice that we have a choice here to take on a new opportunity, role, or sets of things we do and to talk to each other as family, to obtain useful information, and to become a team,” she says.

This, she says, is about changing our mindset and understanding how to take proper measures, communicate effectively, and simply connect with our parents more. When it comes to talking to our parents, one of the main points that Frances stresses, is to not rely on dark news stories, numbers, and statistics, but rather appeal to their emotions. Particularly when they’re being bullheaded about following social distancing and mask wearing and it’s easy to come off as a scold, the tactic is all the more powerful.

“Instead of saying ‘Dad, don’t go to the store! What are you doing?”’ we should approach conversations along the lines of ‘Dad, I’m worried. Would you do this for me and the kids? I know everybody has opinions. But will you do this for us? Because I would just feel so much better if you did,’” suggests Frances.  “You appeal to their parenting, where they want to help you out, and they’re actually going to do for you what they might not do for themselves”

In other words, it’s all about maintaining their power. “The older person needs to be honored and feel like they’re in control,” says Dr. Alicia Ines Arbaje M.P.H., Ph.D. Director of Transitional Care Research, Johns Hopkins Medicine. Dr. Arbaje cautions that it’s often it’s difficult for parents to listen to children and that such directions should come from people they trust — their peers. A faith leader, a friend, or their own doctor.

Barring that, Dr. Arbaje echoes what Frances said. “You want to talk about yourself, not them,” she says. In other words, don’t say: ‘I think you should stay home.’ Instead phrase it as, ‘I’m really anxious thinking about you.’

“Keep in mind that we often treat our parents as children when we take on more of their roles,” says Dr Arbaje. “The biggest mistake we make as adult children of older parents is we don’t let them feel a sense of control while taking away their autonomy.” It’s essential to not speak to them with condescension. During conversations, one of the main, though unspoken, through lines must be: What are your thoughts? How can we work together?

Only in appealing to their parental instincts and making them a part of the decision making — and, if it comes down to it, using some of their own, subtle, tactics against them like of guilt, passive aggressiveness, or just plain old aggressiveness — can we help them stay safe.

The old “I” versus “You” statements are also a good tactic, says Frances. “The I statement is something more like ‘I don’t mean to be preachy but let me tell you what I’ve been doing dad,’” she said. “This takes the pressure off them.”

Validation is also important. Frances suggests asking such questions as, ‘How are you doing with not going out? I’m really happy that you’re doing that for us. The kids are so happy, too.’ “You reward the behavior that you’ve asked for and you build the strength in consistency in the loving way,” says Frances. “It works much better than chiding people.”

This isn’t to say that we should worry about saying something they won’t like to hear. After all, these are scary times, especially for those in their demographic. Still, it needs to be met with thought. “We can’t be Pollyannaish about this,” says Frances. “But at the same time, we can encourage people and we can look to see, truly, what does encourage people?”

Does mom like to garden? Send her some gardening supplies in the mail to get started since it’s not smart for her to go to the store. Dad into golf but can’t go to the driving range? Maybe order him a net for the backyard so he can work on that seven-iron shot. If you have siblings, Frances says that this is a great time to work together with them to think of ideas and perhaps split the costs. “This is an ideal time for teamwork,” she says.

Speaking of teamwork, it’s crucial to keep in mind that you and your parents are on the same team here. What you’re aiming for is interdependence, a system in which everyone relies on everyone else. That means asking them for their advice, sharing non-coronavirus conversation, and just lending an ear. “Your parents are part of your team,” says Francis. “Ask them what they’re doing that’s helpful. Elicit helpful advice from them. And listen. You don’t always have to fix. I know it’s a challenging, especially for men, to not fix sometimes. But it’s so important here.”

For those who feel like they’ve been scolding or soliloquizing too much on the phone, Frances suggests stating outright in the call: ‘Hey mom, I’m just going to listen today.’ Then ask questions, like ‘What’s it’s been like to be with dad all these days? What’s your advice for finding space?’ or whatever you think might work. Maybe your parents use more swear words. I don’t know.

The point is, it’s easy to get caught up in the worrying and explaining and not seek advice, tell a joke, talk about whatever Netflix show you’re watching, or speak like, well, family. Humor goes a long way. So, does empathy. But so does just checking in and saying hello without an agenda. Things are difficult right now. The world is scary and sad. It’s like a bitten apple that has sat on the counter for too long so it’s flesh has begun to turn bizarre colors. We can all accept that. We can validate those facts occasionally without dwelling on them for too long and focus on other steps, other topics of conversation, other small joys.

Transitioning into a parent-of-sort role takes time. It certainly won’t happen overnight. Mistakes will be made. I’ve made a metric ton of them in the past few weeks. The more our concern manifests as commands, we will probably all be accused of talking down to our parents. We should. But with these pointers in mind, little by little, a rhythm will take place and this will all become easier. And, as we’re all doing it together, we can all learn from and share the progress and road blocks we’ve faced. We’re getting practice for when bigger issues besides social distances rear their head.

“One of the upsides of all this is that we’re all in this together and learning together how to best communicate with our parents,” remarks Frances. “When has that ever happened?”