The past few weeks have been a trying time for everyone as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But for many people (myself included), some of the most stressful moments have come from discussing COVID-19 with our parents, grandparents and other older relatives. Sure, there are some that have taken this seriously from the beginning and followed all the directives, but so many others range from being blasé about it to downright combative.
Why some of the older population isn’t taking COVID-19 seriously
Whether they’re misinformed about how serious this outbreak is (perhaps they get their news from sources like Fox News or Rush Limbaugh), in denial because they can’t cope with the stress of the pandemic or are perfectly aware of how serious everything is but act like everything is fine to protect their children, there are a number of scenarios that result in frustrating conversations, psychiatrist Zlatin Ivanov, M.D., tells Lifehacker. Others believe this is â€œjust another virusâ€ comparable to the yearly strain of the flu, and since they survived previous viruses, they feel as though they’re also safe from this one.
Also, the coronavirus outbreak may not sound threatening to some people because the public is not yet on massive lockdowns, says physician Virginia Thornley, M.D.
â€œWe see closures of schools, public events [and] events larger than 250 [people], but this does not limit the spread completely if there are people walking around us already infected,â€ she explains. â€œUntil there is a massive lockdown, most people will likely go about their normal business. Some will reduce their hours out and about, others will keep doing what they normally do.â€
And regardless of age, the human brain has a hard time understanding exponential growth, Shuhan He, MD, a physician at Harvard Massachusetts General Hospital’s Emergency Department explains. â€œPeople just can’t comprehend that yesterday things were fine, then 24 hours later all major sports are cancelled then in five days all of society is suddenly shut down,â€ he tells Lifehacker. â€œWe have a difficult time dealing with any change that’s incredibly slow (global warming) and incredibly fast (COVID).â€
Having conversations about health is often hard, and recent events have made these conversations even harder, according to Dr. Kate Jansen, an assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University and expert in health communication. â€œThinking about effective communication skills and health behaviour change theories, there are some ways to be more effective when talking with an older loved one about their well being,â€ she says. To help prepare you for these difficult conversations with some of the older people in your life, here are some tips from mental health professionals for how to get the job done (ideally without screaming and emotional breakdowns).
Avoid using the words â€œelderlyâ€ or â€œvulnerableâ€
One of the reasons our more mature population may not be taking this outbreak seriously is that they watch the news and see that it affects the â€œelderlyâ€ or â€œvulnerable.â€ But you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone”regardless of age”put themselves in either of those groups. The same applies to â€œweakâ€ or â€œfrail.â€ So when they hear about how COVID-19 impacts people who fall into these categories, there’s a good chance they’ll immediately disregard the information.
Instead, focus on the hard data that refers to actual ages (as in, the numbers) instead of using terms like â€œelderlyâ€ and â€œvulnerable.â€ It may also help to mention that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have both tested positive. Hanks, 63, somehow manages to be simultaneously mature and respected, while maintaining his youthful demeanour. He’s also rich and has access to the best of everything, so pointing out that even he and Wilson have the virus could put things in perspective.
Reassure them that you can stay in touch using technology
If your parent/grandparent/etc has an iPhone or iPad, encourage them to FaceTime with you as well as their friends. The idea of social isolation may be scary for them (and anyone, really), so if they’re able to see other people, that might help. If they don’t have Apple products, walk them through how to download Skype and use that instead.
Another option is the Connected Living app, which has features like creating a private social network for family and friends. It also has the capability of tracking someone’s movement. â€œIf you notice that a family member’s activity level drops or they aren’t interacting on the social feed, or they’re out in a public place that’s likely crowded, you can help to redirect your family member”whether he/she is an older adult or a teenager,â€ Sarah Hoit, CEO of Connected Living, tells Lifehacker. â€œIt’s been used as an opportunity to be more connected and present with each other, and was created before this outbreak started.â€
Listen to their concerns
This is important in any communication, but is especially crucial when talking to people about COVID-19. â€œI think there is something to be said for listening to people and trying to hear their concerns,â€ He explains. â€œLook, I’m a doctor at a major hospital associated with Harvard University, one of the world’s leading institutions. My entire life is to speak in disclaimers, jargon and technicalities because we always want to be technically correct. But that stuff doesn’t work that well when it comes to changing regular people’s behaviours.â€ Instead of just talking at people and rattling off all the reasons they’re wrong, ask them about their concerns and address each one to the best of your ability. That way you’re able to hone in on exactly what is most relevant to them.
Often in high-stakes communication we become so focused on our own message and concerns that we forget to listen to the other person, Jansen says. â€œAs you’re listening to their thoughts, periodically repeat their message back to them. For example, if they state â€˜I’m feeling fine, you don’t need to worry'”or whatever message”reflect back their main point: â€˜Right now you’re feeling fine, so this doesn’t seem like a reason to worry.’ This method lets the other person know you’ve heard and understood their point of view before,â€ Jansen explains. â€œWhen we feel heard, we are then more open to listening.â€
Use facts and figures
Because COVID-19 is caused by a new strain of the coronavirus, it can be hard for anyone”not just parents and grandparents”to understand what that means. As a physician in an emergency room, He has been fielding many questions about this strain of the coronavirus, and says he tries to anchor to things we already know and paint a picture. This is generally what he says:
â€œWe now have a virus that spreads like the common cold, but as deadly as a heart attack. The mortality rate for coronavirus and a heart attack is basically the same, at 15 per cent for anyone over 55 years old. While we can get into all the technicalities, this is what all prior experience and data show us. It’s important they take it seriously.â€
If you’re using facts and guidelines from places like the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) or local health departments, you’re going to have to make yourself familiar with them first. And if you’d like some help deciphering everything that’s out there and separating fact from fiction, Lifehacker has a whole section devoted to the coronavirus with extensive coverage of the outbreak and ways to make your life a little easier during this complicated time.
Focus on helping others
Sometimes it’s hard to make changes just for ourselves, but if we consider our actions in relation to how they’ll impact other people”especially when dealing with parents, grandparents and older loved ones”it might be more effective. â€œOften a message focusing on how they are helping others is easier to take action on,â€ Jansen says. â€œFor example, explaining that they are at increased risk for infection may cause your loved on to deflect”the mindset of â€˜you don’t need to worry about me'”whereas messages about helping others can invoke change more effectively such as the message â€˜we want to keep you healthy so we don’t inadvertently spread the virus to your friends/grandkids/spouse.’â€
When having conversations like this, it can be easy for all parties involved to feel overwhelmed. Instead of trying to tackle everything in one conversation, focus on one specific thing you want your loved one to change. â€œPick the most important behaviour and let the rest go for the moment,â€ Jansen says. â€œ[Saying] â€˜I’d love if you’d let me have groceries delivered for the next two weeks, rather than having you go to the store’ is much easier to accept than a laundry list of ways you want them to change their life.â€
Follow up and express your love
After your conversation, follow up and see how they’re doing, if changes have been made, or if they’re in a place where they are more ready to hear your concern, Jansen says. â€œIn the end, keeping your relationship strong and showing your affection is key.â€