Aging parents at home during COVID-19: What should adult children do?
Dr. Sandra Timmermann
With the country beginning to open, these are trying times for all generations — families who are keeping their young children occupied at home while holding down full-time jobs, teenagers who are meeting up with groups of friends and their parents wondering how careful they are, men and women who are unemployed and don’t see any job possibilities on the horizon.
Then there are those over age 65 who are considered one of the groups most vulnerable to COVID-19. Older persons are being asked to shelter in place, but many are venturing outside again. And their adult children find themselves worrying about their aging parents and their health and safety.
There are some simple facts that can’t be denied. Older persons, even if they are healthy, are at greater risk than younger persons because their immune systems weaken with age. Also, they are more likely to have underlying conditions than other age groups, which puts them in double jeopardy. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 80% of deaths associated with the virus were in adults age 65 and over. A large percentage of these deaths unfortunately occur in nursing homes among the very old and frail, but that doesn’t negate the risk for the independent “young-olds,” too.
Heightened fear, heightened precautions
Unless there are cognitive issues, it would be difficult for older persons not to be aware of the risk of getting the virus. The constant news cycle creates a roller-coaster of emotions, especially for those over age 65 — anxiety, fear, depression, confusion, even defiance. The children of aging parents have fears, too. In addition to worrying about their own families, they worry more than ever about their parents’ well-being.
Retirees are now experiencing a role reversal. Their children are telling them what to do, not the other way around. They are suddenly getting instructions from their son or daughter —“Don’t leave the house. Order groceries online or by phone. Don’t go into a store. Don’t visit us or your friends.” Their concerns are sincere and are justified based on the alarming statistics. However, they should be asking themselves a basic question: What is the role they should play with their parents and the best path to help them through these difficult times?
Assessing the situation
Before adult children jump to conclusions about what should be done to ease the way for their parents during the pandemic, there are some factors to consider.
Health status. It’s clear from statistics that people over age 65 are at greater risk for the virus. Adult children might ask themselves some questions about their parents’ health status. Do they have underlying health conditions making them even more vulnerable? Do they show signs of cognitive decline that impact their decision-making capabilities, their judgment and their ability to think clearly? If so, there is a need to be more involved. On the other hand, if parents are generally in good health — as more and more older people are these days — they are more able to take some calculated risks.
Their home. It’s also important to evaluate parents’ living arrangements. If they live in an apartment building in the city, they are likely to be at greater risk of catching the virus than if they live in the suburbs and less populated areas. Those in denser areas may need to wait to venture outside.
Social isolation. Assessing how lonely parents are as a result of being confined is important, too. One in four people over age 65 live alone, and while that doesn’t necessarily equate with loneliness, social isolation can be a potential problem exacerbated by the pandemic. The National Institute on Aging reports loneliness can lead to a greater risk of heart disease, obesity, depression, cognitive decline and premature death. From a mental health perspective, it’s useful to weigh the relative value of parents being confined at home vs. safely going out again.
Taking the parents’ perspective into account
Perhaps the most important thing for adult children to consider, however, is their parents’ perspective on the pandemic — how they are coping, their attitudes about being at home and what risks they feel they can take. If they are healthy cognitively, physically and emotionally, adult children need to face the fact their parents are capable of making decisions for themselves. While they may struggle with their dichotomy of their role as protector vs. advisor, it is after all, their parents’ lives to live.
Adult children and their own retirement: a wake-up call
For adult children, one unintended consequence of the pandemic may be the new insights gained about their own retirement and how they want to age. As they worry about their parents, they are likely to think about themselves 10, 20 or 30 years down the road. If a virus like this one strikes when they are older, they may be asking themselves where they would like to be living and if their house is suitable. They also may be more tuned in to how they would weather the storm financially. Since health crises like this one often go hand-in-hand with economic downturns, they may need to rethink their investment and income strategies, delay their anticipated retirement date and make sure they are making provisions to cover their healthcare and long-term care costs. Doing the right thing for their aging parents during the pandemic can lead to revamping their own retirement plan so they are better prepared for their own future.