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“Do this for me”: How to convince older loved ones to socially distance

It’s more important than ever for vulnerable groups to stay inside. Here’s how to approach the conversation with older family members.

An older person’s hands holding a cellphone.
Conversations with older loved ones on the importance of social distancing should focus on actions, not news.
Getty Images/Westend61

The group text came in from a concerned and well-meaning relative on Friday morning: a list of tips for keeping yourself safe from the coronavirus purporting to be “from Stanford,” (Stanford has since responded to the widespread email, saying the information is inaccurate and not from them) including self-testing for breathing difficulties by holding your breath (debunked), and sipping water every 15 minutes (sorry, no).

As we face down a global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, I’m not the only one anxiously receiving and sharing information online, so I can’t fault the instinct to grab onto something that seems helpful and relevant. But judging by the hordes of people lining up outside bars Saturday to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and the friends tearing their hair out over trying to keep their parents inside and alive, good information about things we can do to halt the spread of this illness is desperately needed.

Younger adults and their boomer parents are dealing with some serious role reversal right now, as we beg the same people who begged us not to do drugs or play in traffic to keep themselves home and stop getting their health news from conservative talk radio. As Anne Helen Peterson reported for BuzzFeed last week, many older people are resisting “social distancing” recommendations despite widespread knowledge that people over age 65 and people with chronic illnesses are at the highest risk of dying if they catch the virus.

The reasons for the resistance? Peterson cites three main obstacles: “misinformation, disidentification, and general stubbornness.” Between confusing and inconsistent government directives and media reports; politicians, pastors, and business owners who waited until the last possible moment to close and cancel things; and the ever-churning Facebook hoax generator, inaccurate information is feeding every impulse to just deal with it later and hope for the best. As for disidentification, many boomers don’t see themselves as “old people,” or “possibly sick people,” especially active, reasonably healthy ones.

So how can we make sure we’re sharing only the good stuff, especially when the available information changes every day, especially when even national authorities are sharing extremely mixed messages?

And how can we talk to our relatives, especially older, not-extremely-online relatives, and make sure the message is getting through? Here are some tips to get them informed and inside.

First, get your own facts straight

We’re all susceptible to things that seem plausible or give us reasons for optimism or a sense of control when we feel helpless. But before we share links, infographics, or other “viral” media, we need to double-check some things first. The “from a Stanford doctor” list my relative sent had some telltale problems on sight. Most notably, it was missing an author, any website links, or any citations of actual medical or scientific resources, and it didn’t match anything that was reported on legitimate news or public health sites. Having the right facts could literally save lives, and spreading the wrong ones, even inadvertently, could prevent your elderly relatives from taking you seriously about important things in the future.

Some information sources I’ve personally found informative and persuasive: the actual Stanford Health Care website, updated frequently, and Vox’s comprehensive explainer “A coronavirus reading guide for the perplexed, the anxious, and the obsessive,” which contains links to vetted information sources including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This interactive graphic from the Washington Post’s Harry Stevens is as informative as it is hypnotic. In his post “Social Distancing: This Is Not a Snow Day,” Asaf Bitton, MD, MPH, the executive director of Ariadne Labs in Boston, answers questions like, “Is it okay to have playdates and sleepovers for bored kids”? (No).

For those whose relatives say, “Stop worrying, it’s just like the flu!” as they take in yet another zumba class? Here’s Charles Ornstein in ProPublica: This coronavirus is unlike anything in our lifetime, and we have to stop comparing it to the flu. Here’s Vox’s Brian Resnick: Covid-19 is not the flu. It’s worse.

Dianna E. Anderson, a writer in Minneapolis who tweeted that her 68-year-old father refused to stay away from a buffet restaurant this weekend, says she was able to have a follow-up conversation with him about the realities of the pandemic and the fact that he’s in a high-risk group. “It’s sunk in, finally,” Anderson said. How did she reach him? Anderson says, “I think it was South Dakota electing to close all K-12 schools for a week. That’s never happened before, and as he said on the phone, he’d never experienced anything like this in his lifetime (that he could remember).” When her dad kept insisting, “Well, it’s just like a really bad flu,” Anderson says, “I was emphatic in saying that no, this is worse ... and said directly, [more] people your age who get it will die from it.’ That seemed to reach him, too.”

If data isn’t breaking through, Peterson suggests showing rather than telling. “Show what’s happening in Italy and how the hospitals are overwhelmed, despite full quarantine measures. Explain that if the same thing happens here, they’ll need to be prepared: with meds, with food, with supplies.”

Second, speak in terms of actions, not just facts

As tempting as it is to drown everyone we know in all the facts and hope that will automatically lead to good decisions, people don’t work like that. As a species, we’re not …actually good? … at extrapolating from information and translating it into healthy actions.

Instead, tell people a series of actions they should and can be doing to protect themselves and others. If you’re speaking with your parents, grandparents, or other relatives, what is it that you want them to do? First is for them to stop touching their faces, wash their hands for 20 seconds frequently, and stock up on medications and food for at least 30 days. Find out if they need help stocking up, for example, if you can go to the store for them, or set up online grocery ordering if you don’t live nearby.

Then we get to the more difficult one: telling them to socially distance. Your folks need to stay home, cancel, or stop attending social gatherings, and avoid unnecessary errands and contact with people. This requires a giant adjustment in attitude, so maybe focus your energy there.

During my unofficial survey of friends and social media contacts who are trying to get their parents to take this seriously and stay the eff home, an extremely common thing is parents who insist that they are socially distancing and taking thing seriously but also making time for book club, fitness classes, volunteer work, and their friend’s birthday brunches (“But we’re being safe, we didn’t hug!”).

It’s time to ask your folks what they’re up to like you’re trying to suss out if they are smoking weed after school or if there will be any parents home at the sleepover. Ask what “Just a few errands” means. Ask them what “But we’re being safe!” means.

Maybe start the whole conversation by asking them what they are doing to keep themselves safe, ask them what they know, what they’ve heard, and what they need from you. “[Relative], I saw that they canceled schools and events near you. Are you all stocked up on what you need, and are you good to stay inside for a few weeks?” can get you started.

Third, if “please don’t!” is getting you nowhere, tell them what you’re personally doing and why

Nobody likes sentences that start with “You should …” or “What you really need to do is ...” If facts and directives aren’t getting through, try sharing what you are doing as a way to remove the imperative.

  • ”I’m canceling everything and keeping my asthmatic self home for the foreseeable future.”
  • ”I’m not letting the kids have any playdates and sorry, we won’t be having any visits with grandma right now. Can we set up Skype story time though?”
  • ”I’m happy to pick up what you need at the store, but I’m not coming in — text me your list and I’ll leave it on the porch.”

The why is important, too, and may be an opportunity to get more facts out there and appeal to your folks’ sense of altruism:

  • ”You can be asymptomatic but still spread it to other people, so I’m erring on the safe side.”
  • ”Without widespread testing, we can’t know, so I’m taking what precautions I can.”
  • ”I would feel terrible if [high-risk person you both know and care about] got it from me, so I’m going to keep my distance.”

Maybe your relatives won’t be persuaded by altruism or facts. Would they consider it as a favor to you?

  • ”I’m trying not to panic, and it would help my peace of mind a lot if you would stay home for now. Do this for me.”
  • ”I’ve had to stop myself from going places and touching my face about 10,000 times, I know it’s a giant pain, and the exact opposite of all the ‘get out there!’ ‘keep busy!’ advice for older people, but I don’t want to lose you. Please take this seriously and take precautions. For me.”

Anderson also emphasized the influential role that trust and peer networks have. “A lot of people won’t start taking it seriously until they see people in their own age group or in groups they respect taking it seriously,” she said. “I also suspect my brother and sister-in-law postponing my niece’s birthday party had an effect, too, which means social consequences might be really a good way to go here.”

Charlotte H., a 34-year-old grad student in Springfield, Missouri, agrees. “[My mom] believes in being in church no matter what. Maybe if her pastor closed the church she’d take things seriously; I know she listens to and respects her pastor a lot.”

Institutions and official directives like school closings, event cancellations, and business closings do carry a lot of weight, but don’t also forget the ways that your older relatives have power and influence with each other and their community. The pastors, business owners, senior managers, and public servants in our lives need to hear from us that staying home and using their positions of responsibility to get others to do the same is the right thing to do. And if your mom won’t stay home from church? Maybe her pastor needs a reminder they can use wifi for a while and send them a link to a Zoom tutorial.

Fourth, do what you can to help people surmount tech and other barriers

Is it that your folks don’t want to comply with social distancing and quarantine protocols, or is there some reason they can’t? During the “What do you need and how can I help you get what you need?” conversation, take note of fears, concerns, accessibility needs, and tech barriers.

The people who still write paper checks in the grocery store or valiantly keep print media alive so they can clip out articles on the dangers of vaping to send you are not necessarily going to latch onto telemedicine or online shopping for groceries. Offer to help them set up accounts and be their on-call troubleshooter. Offer to conference call the doctor’s office on their behalf and get the info together about telemedicine appointments and prescription meds.

Google available services for older people in their neighborhoods, see what local mutual aid options are springing up to respond to the crisis (tons of volunteers are offering to safely run errands for housebound people for as long as they can on an ad hoc basis). See if local grocery stores are offering a dedicated shopping time for older people.

For those of you who have steadily enforced “I’m not your tech support, Aunt Bea” boundaries for the last decade, I both apologize and salute you. But now is the time to step in.

Finally, hold the line with the one person you can control (you)

Our relatives and fellow citizens may not be persuadable and they may not be persuadable specifically by us. If your relatives insist on going out dancing and hugging the whole town, you may not be able to personally stop them, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep yourself and your immediate household as safe as you possibly can.

This might mean that it’s too risky to spend time with family members for the foreseeable future, and that hurts. I texted the relative who sent me the list of debunked tips to say that I loved them and needed them to stay safe and alive, since asthma prevents me from flying home for any funerals. It’s not snark. I’m a high-risk, immunosuppressed human who is going absolutely nowhere for the next month and who greatly appreciates the efforts of everyone reading this to do what they can to slow this thing down and give science a chance.

Jennifer Peepas lives in Chicago and writes the online advice column

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