Senior practicing social distancing during visit from granddaughter

How to Talk to Senior Relatives about Social Distancing

Bethesda Health | May 27, 2020

Let’s start with the facts:

COVID-19 is particularly devastating for senior adults, especially seniors 65 and older with severe health conditions that have compromised their health.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those conditions include:

Since the most common method for contracting the virus is through person-to-person contact, the best preventative for people of any age is to stay at least six feet apart and, particularly for seniors, stay out of crowded spaces and avoid group gatherings.

But what if the facts do not persuade your senior loved one to practice social distancing? First, let us examine some of the obstacles to convincing them.

What are the Barriers?

  1. No one likes to be told what to do. This is particularly true when an adult child is talking to a parent. The parent may remember you as the 10-year-old who relied on them for help, not as an informed adult concerned for their welfare.
  2. They have lived through a lot of crises. Senior have witnessed or participated in wars, and survived personal tragedies, calamities, and many dire predictions. COVID-19 may just be something they are mentally adding to the list of trials they’ve already gotten through.
  3. Entitled by seniority. Because they have lived a long life, seniors may feel entitled to do as they please. This is particularly true of seniors who are in reasonably good health and do not feel threatened by COVID-19.
  4. Resistance to a change in their routine. Most people like routine, especially seniors. They spent their entire lives getting comfortable with themselves and their lifestyle. The changes resulting from practicing social distancing are not part of their plan.
  5. Quarantine has a price. Isolation and loneliness can be particularly devastating for seniors, negatively affecting mental and physical health.
  6. Numbers may not tell the story. Large numbers are hard to grasp, and can also be misleading. According to experts, as terrifying as the statistics are for COVID-19, they probably understate the number of people infected and those that have died as a result.
  7. Social pressure is contagious. If seniors see other older adults maintaining their social schedule and mixing with other people, the temptation is to follow their example.
  8. They don’t understand what social distancing means. They may still be visiting friends, going to stores and running errands, thinking that their exposure is minimal. Ask them what they are doing to stay safe, and reinforce what social distancing means.

How to Overcome the Barriers

First, let’s consider what isn’t going to convince your senior to practice social distancing:

Strategies that might work include:

  1. Make sure you are the best person to talk to them. If you and your parents have argued in the past over a host of issues, it may be best to find a sibling or friend to talk with them. Other sources might include authority figures like their physician or a religious leader where they worship.
  2. Let them know it’s about love, not control. You’re not there to take over their lives. Make it clear that you are concerned about them because you love them. Tell them it would make you feel much better if they would practice social distancing.
  3. Listen. Hear your senior’s concerns about social distancing, and why they may fear it, or find out how they may be misinformed about COVID-19. At the very least, you set the tone for a conversation and not an ultimatum that will probably be resisted. Respect that they were making adult decisions before you were born.
  4. Share information from reputable sources. There is a lot of misleading information out there about COVID-19. Some of it being spread by sources that older Americans are more likely to believe.  The CDC is a good information source. The family physician is another. Also, make sure your loved ones understand the basic steps of prevention in addition to social distancing, like frequent handwashing, keeping a sufficient supply of medications and food, and when to seek emergency medical care or call their physician.
  5. Offer positive alternatives. If your senior loved one is dreading the isolation of social distancing, give him or her some ideas about what they can do, like staying physically active, gardening, or working on arts and crafts. Also assist them with ordering groceries, medications and other supplies online, or delivering them to the home. They may continue to go out simply because they don’t know how to obtain things they need by any other means. And call, text, and email them. Stop by their home and step back for a few minutes of conversation.
  6. Tell them what you are doing. Share how you are practicing social distancing. If you take it seriously your seniors may take it more seriously as well.

To learn more tips on caring for your senior loved ones, check out the Caregiver Tips section in our blog.

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