At the end of March, as the pandemic reshaped all our lives, I wrote a blog post about how grandparents might cope with safety recommendations made at that time while remaining connected with their families. Many of us hoped that the crisis would be short-lived, enabling us to return to “normal” before too long. Now six months have elapsed, and as one reader recently wrote to me, “we grandparents are muddling through.”
So, with fall here and winter on the way, what’s next for grandparents? Those with serious medical conditions may find little has changed since March: it’s still safest to limit in-person contact with grandchildren and the outside world. For grandparents who have been able to connect outdoors with family for bike rides, meetups at a park, shared meals outside — or even vacationing together — new decisions loom as grandchildren return to preschool or school, spending more time with other kids and other families. Given what we know currently about COVID-19, how can we consider decisions about the risks and rewards of grandparenting, then navigate these with our adult children?
Do the basics
All of us benefit from taking basic preventive steps: handwashing, physical distancing, meeting outdoors when weather permits, and mask-wearing. It’s also important for everyone in the family to get a flu shot this fall. Fortunately, the same steps that help protect against COVID-19 also help protect us from the flu and other illnesses.
Balance piles of safety and piles of risk
As pediatrician Aaron Carroll wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, we can group our actions as piles of safety and piles of risk. Like many experts, he advises tradeoffs: if we do something that involves some risk, then we are wise to balance it with low-risk behavior. What this may mean operationally is that if you decide to see your grandchildren indoors, you may also decide to further limit shopping in stores or spending time in public. And you may ask your children to further limit their contact with friends and their own ventures out.
Keep conversations ongoing
Would that we could all have one conversation with our adult children and then be done with it. By this point in the pandemic, most grandparents have discovered that conversations around COVID-19 are ongoing. In the beginning many encountered a large dose of protectionism: their adult children were on a mission to keep them safe. Many of these protectors have since eased up, in some instances so much so that grandparents now find themselves in the position of defending caution.
Grandparents need to be clear with their adult children regarding what they see as safe and unsafe — and somewhere in between. Many find it helps to talk regularly about what everyone in the family is doing, not doing, and plans to do. For example, if the grandparents feel it is unsafe to eat in a restaurant indoors or to attend a dinner party with friends, they may elect to quarantine from the grandchildren for 14 days following the event.
One of the many challenges of the pandemic has been avoiding judgment about other people’s decisions. When it comes to having frank and productive conversations with adult children, it is especially important to avoid sounding judgmental. You may feel that your son needs to go to the dentist. By contrast, you may see his doubles tennis game as unnecessary. Part of your agreement with your adult children is that you will not judge or criticize their decisions, but you need to be free to turn down some babysitting requests (as in the doubles game) and accept others (as in the dentist). And if you find that certain choices expose you to risks that feel worrisome or unacceptable, you need to be free to share that information and to step back from gathering with them if risks outweigh benefits.
I know that everyone reading this joins me in hoping that the pandemic will be behind us in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, all of us continue to muddle through, making the best decisions we can at a given moment in time. Staying aware of updated medical information about the virus and of its incidence where you live is key. Talking to your health care team about your personal risks and decisions can help, too. As we head into fall, many of us will visit and revisit, work and rework rules and conversations about seeing our grandchildren. I believe we will all do our best to make decisions that help ensure everyone’s health.