Like most tentative and excited first-time moms, Katie, 33, had planned to enforce a few rules for visiting friends and relatives anxious to hold her newborn: Wash your hands. Don’t come over unannounced. Be prepared to help. Bring food.
But when the pandemic came to the United States and an unparalleled public health crisis unfolded, her rules changed. Katie (not her real name) lives in Washington, one of the first states to experience an outbreak of the virus and subsequent shut down.
Since the baby was due in April, she and her husband needed to establish a new protocol. Would-be visitors (no friends, just close relatives) had to promise to wear masks all the time in the lead-up to the visit, practice social distancing, quarantine if they’d traveled, and wash their hands constantly. Katie felt her requirements were straightforward, and she had public health on her side. Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed up her approach. Her parents—who are themselves at an elevated risk (her mom is in her late 60s and her dad is in his 70s)—vowed to adhere to her guidelines. But their social media suggested otherwise.
“My parents have been downright compulsive liars about this whole business,” says Katie. “They have consistently told me they are ‘quarantining’ or ‘social distancing’ so that they can come visit me. However, my mom is constantly posting on Facebook activities that are neither of those.”
Katie isn’t alone in dealing with duplicitous, albeit well-meaning older relatives. A quick Google search reveals a stunning number of how-to guides aimed at helping adults navigate their frustrations when their parents fail to adhere to mask mandates and social distancing guidelines. Michael Schulman, a writer for The New Yorker, couldn’t believe his parents went to a restaurant in March. Joe Pinsker wrote a guide on how to convince relatives to get serious about the pandemic for The Atlantic.
But with a deluge of misinformation handed down from the Trump administration and amplified via right-wing media, ever-changing local guidelines, loneliness, and now months of limited social contact and mask-wearing, it has become more and more difficult to convince the pandemic-fatigued to continue to follow best practices. It is of course hard for all of us—from teens missing their friends to millennials navigating dating or raising small children or both at once. But older people—grandparents, for example—in particular seem to be struggling.
Katie’s daughter is her parents’ first grandchild, so she understands their desire to spend as much time with her as possible. But when she reiterates how serious the pandemic is, her concerns are brushed off as “first-time-parent jitters,” Katie explains. And she’s tired of the gaslighting.
“We ended up getting into a huge fight with my parents when they insisted that they knew more than I did because they ‘just watched a press release,’” she says. “I’m a nurse and have been closely following all the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization literature, as well as many other health care resources. They told me I was overreacting and that this wasn’t a big deal.”
“The thought of doing something for a short amount of time feels sort of doable,” Jessi Gold, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, says. “But when people started realizing, ‘Hey, this isn’t ending and there is a more uncertain aspect to all of this than I realized; this might go on for years, not just months,’ there becomes this sort of initial anxious agitation. And then I think people sort of weight risks and benefits.”
It is difficult to adequately weigh risks and benefits, though, when you’re part of a community that is most susceptible to right-wing conspiracy theories and anti-mask propaganda. A reported 2 in 10 adults at or over the age of 65 believe the widely debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was “intentionally planned,” according to the Pew Research Center. And a March survey conducted by the Harris Poll found that Americans ages 60 and over were initially the least worried and the least informed about the novel coronavirus. Half of all Fox News viewers are 68 and older, and Fox News has undercut public health experts’ message on the virus—so much so that one working paper published in September (focused on the network’s coverage of the virus in March) suggested that host Sean Hannity’s downplaying the threat of the pandemic actually caused a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. (Fox disputed the findings.)
But whether grandparents want to acknowledge the realities of COVID-19 or not, the risks to their age group remain, including the risk of profound loneliness. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one quarter of Americans over the age of 65were considered “socially isolated.” But shelter-in-place initiatives meant to mitigate the spread have exacerbated senior citizen isolation. And given the evidence that shows that visiting grandchildren can help combat the mental and physical ramifications of loneliness, some grandparents may feel that a lie or two that allows them to spend time with their loved ones is no big deal.
“When it comes down to those decisions, if you haven’t been following super-strict guidelines, or you haven’t been super good about it, and your kids have, I think what happens is [grandparents] are like, Well, I don’t have COVID, so it’s not like I’m going to give [my family] COVID, so what’s the harm in me just saying I’m cool, come over, we’ll social distance and hang out?” Gold explains. “I think a lot of these grandparents are thinking, I need to be given energy back, and I only get energy back by seeing my kids and grandkids.”
That is certainly the case for Anne, 35, who also lives in Washington State and asked that her name be changed to protect the privacy of her family. Anne’s mother lost her spouse to cancer three years ago and now lives alone. Her grandchildren are “her pride and joy,” Anne says, but the pandemic has made it difficult for her to see them on a regular basis.
“COVID has made our ability to visit my mom extremely difficult,” says Anne, who is mom to a 6-year-old girl. “It is one of the reasons why this pandemic has been so hard on her. I know [it] has been extremely detrimental to her mental health.”
Initially, Anne’s mother took COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines very seriously. But over time, her dedication to the rules weakened. Noticing her mom faltering, Anne became anxious about visiting even semi-regularly. But a recent visit has made any future meet-ups nothing short of stress-inducing.
“We went to see my mom for a short visit so she could see my child. My mom put her mask on and kissed my child on the forehead through her mask,” she says. “That made my partner and I nervous, but we didn’t say anything. She made us dinner and as we were dishing up our food, I leaned over and gave her a side hug. Immediately after the side hug, she let me know that she had been in the same room as someone who tested positive for COVID, just days before. We immediately backed away and were very nervous to eat the food and be in the same room.”
Anne’s mother insisted she was “fine” because she washes her hands often, but Anne was incensed. Her partner is considered high-risk, and her mother’s keeping potential exposure from them until after they were in her vicinity felt unacceptable.
“I am very nervous about visiting her now, which is really sad,” she says. “I love and miss her, and so does my child. But if she had told us before we came to her home, we would have made the decision not to visit. She took away that choice and that made me feel almost betrayed.”
Given that the CDC has warned that the fall and winter months will be “one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health,” tensions between diligent parents and lax grandparents are certain to rise. Gold encourages families to hold their bottom lines, but to also approach their frustrated parents with grace.
“It doesn’t help to scream and it doesn’t help to yell and it doesn’t help to shame,” Gold explains. “I think it helps to try to understand and have conversations, and that often is starting from a place of empathy. I think that it’s appropriate to continue to have boundaries and enforce them—it’s your children and your choice. But I think that you also probably want to take into consideration the health of your parent and think about why they might be lying.”
Gold encourages parents to pick their battles and set guidelines that aren’t long-term deal breakers. But as COVID cases continue to spike and hospitals nationwide become overwhelmed, it’s important to remember what these precautions are about—protecting yourself and your loved ones now so that you can all spend much more quality time together in the future, once it’s safe.
As New York Times science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. said of planning for Thanksgiving: “Think of this like World War II—our soldiers didn’t get to fly home to eat turkey. My father was at Normandy. My mother was with the Red Cross in occupied Austria. They missed the holidays. Life went on. There were happier years later.”
As for Katie, she and her husband have decided that they won’t be visiting either set of grandparents this holiday season. “I haven’t even been able to tell them yet, because of the guilt I know they will put on me,” she says. “But I am not being an overprotective, first-time mom. I’m being a good human who is following the social and moral responsibility we have to each other to limit the spread.”
Danielle Campoamor is an award-winning freelance writer and editor published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and on CNN, NBC, and others. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and two sons.
Originally Appeared on Glamour