This article appeared in the March 24, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

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Coronavirus generation gap: Mom fights to keep kids – and grandma – home

We look at navigating the concern for family members who are disregarding public health directives – often teens and seniors – and how to express compassion and care from a distance.

Robby Loeb
Pia Loeb and her two children, who are in Boulder, Colorado, use video chat to talk to their grandmother, who is in New York.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a spotlight on generational differences – and generated a blame game about who is not doing their part to confront it.

At one extreme of the spectrum are the spring breakers crowding beaches in Florida, symbolizing a generation that, unfazed by their own personal risk, is not putting collective public health first. At the other end are baby boomers, who health officials say may be among the most vulnerable. But anecdotally, they’ve sometimes shown as little caution about their health as youth, as they continue to go out and socialize.

This is mounting pressure on the so-called sandwich generation: those caring for people both older and younger than themselves. Many in this group are battling to get their aging parents to heed expert advice on “social distancing,” at the same time they are raising kids who may not understand why they need to make sacrifices unlike any they have ever known.

“This is a really stressful time for people, because you can’t just jump on a plane and go to [your parents],” says Kathleen Kauth, an eldercare mediator and president of K.T. Beck Enterprises in Omaha, Nebraska. “There’s a greater sense of separation.”

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1. Coronavirus generation gap: Mom fights to keep kids – and grandma – home

Pia Loeb has been waking up restless at 5 a.m., her mind swirling with questions about where her mother should live and how to keep her young family safe from the coronavirus – although it sometimes seems like she’s the only one of them worrying.

Until last week, her septuagenarian mother was still playing tennis in her thrice-weekly clinic. And on the same day she was pleading with her mother over the phone to stay put at home in her apartment in New York’s Westchester County, Ms. Loeb found out her tween daughter, who was sent to school to pick up her things before it shuttered and come right home, had instead gone to the local shopping center with a group of friends.

Ms. Loeb, who has health issues that put her at higher risk, says the generalized disquiet that everyone is feeling right now has been compounded by her own fears that it’s not being taken seriously enough by those closest to her.

“I’ve been really anxious, as a caregiver for my kids, and taking care of myself. I want to do everything I can to protect all of us,” says Ms. Loeb, who lives in Boulder, Colorado. “And for my mom, it makes me really sad to feel powerless that I can’t do anything at this point to help her.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Her own struggle reflects pressure mounting on Generation X, many of whom are battling to get their aging parents to heed expert advice on “social distancing,” at the same time they are raising kids who may not understand why they need to make sacrifices unlike any they have ever known. It can be especially heartbreaking for the so-called sandwich generation: those caring for both older and younger than themselves, who now face tough choices about how to live as a family in the face of so much risk.

“This is a really stressful time for people, because you can’t just jump on a plane and go to [your parents],” says Kathleen Kauth, an eldercare mediator and president of K.T. Beck Enterprises in Omaha, Nebraska. “There’s a greater sense of separation.”

Absorbing the risk

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on generational differences – and generated a blame game about who is not doing their part to confront it. At one end of the spectrum are the spring breakers crowding beaches in Florida. Their cavalier attitudes might be extreme, but they’ve come to symbolize a generation that, unfazed by their own personal risk, is not putting collective public health first.

At the other end are baby boomers. Health officials say older adults may be among the most vulnerable. But anecdotally, they’ve sometimes shown as little caution about their health as youth, earning reprimands from their children as they continue to attend exercise classes at the pool or meet friends at coffee shops.

Polling only partially bears this out, and attitudes have shifted since the U.S. government has changed its message about the risk of the coronavirus as cases mount. A Pew Research Center poll showed the older you are, the more prone you are to think the outbreak presents a major risk to your personal health. Much bigger differences were seen along party affiliation.

In a Kaiser poll, the only noticeable difference in behavior between those 60 or older and adults overall was the response to whether respondents were forgoing large gatherings, with 40% of the overall population saying they have canceled plans, compared with 29% of the older cohort.

In a March 5 to 9 Harris Poll survey reported by Forbes, 77% of those over 65 said they think they are “unlikely” to catch the coronavirus based on their habits, the least concerned of all age groups.

Much of that attitude can be attributed to having lived or seen their parents live through much worse: wars, draft, rationing, or scarcity. Baby boomers today are also much more physically active than earlier generations, which could alter their sense of perceived risk. Ms. Loeb’s mother, at 78, is the youngest player in her tennis group. Though frustrated, Ms. Loeb also empathizes with both her mother and her children. “It’s a lot to take in, for all of us,” she says. “For society overall, it makes sense it takes time. Not everyone is going to digest it at the same rate.”

An emotional burden

Coming to terms with the virus has happened in waves for the family of Nadine Roberts Cornish, a certified senior adviser and founder of The Caregiver’s Guardian, a consulting service for family caregivers. She says both her millennial son and 90-year-old father were at first skeptical about taking COVID-19 seriously. “We have had some interesting conversations around social distancing, because he really wasn’t buying into the necessity of it, not really understanding,” she says of her son. Like many Americans, now he does, she says, especially as they now know two people who have been diagnosed with the virus.

As for her father, he initially didn’t want to give up regular church-going. “He didn’t think this message applied to him initially,” she says. Since his church has moved its services online, she says he now attends at home via livestream. She herself now understands she can no longer fly from Denver to New Orleans visit him either. Instead she mailed him a “love letter,” she says, something he “would be able to read over and over and over again as a reminder to the incredibly, wonderfully perfect dad that he has been to me all of my life.”

That kind of separation can be morally crushing to the “sandwich generation.” 

Heather Benson is a Gen X mom and caregiver in Southampton, outside Philadelphia. She is caring for her mother, who has dementia and lives in their home, and has two daughters, ages 11 and 13. Since the coronavirus outbreak, she had to let go of two aides since they also work in a nursing facility where the risks of coronavirus spread are higher. And her daughters can’t go into their grandmother’s bedroom anymore – which places an emotional burden on all of them.

“It’s been harder on my youngest than my oldest. She’s the one that likes to go in and watch movies with my mom,” she says. “I have been getting groceries delivered and have not been leaving the house so as to reduce the risk for my mom. It’s even more complicated because my mom just started on hospice, so of course family wants to see her, and we’re all concerned they may not get that chance.”

Ms. Loeb also struggles with the uncertainties of “when” and “how.” For weeks as the risks mounted, she considered bringing her mother to live with them in Colorado, dreaming of renting an RV to do the cross-country trek. But she worried that would put her mother at greater risk, especially in a household with young children. “I said, ‘Mom, we might not see each other for a year,’” she says. “It’s terrifying for me to think that if she gets sick, she’s alone, or if her whole building gets quarantined, there’s no one there to help her.” 

She feels more at ease now that her mother agrees that she must stay home. And so for now they’re relying on technology to bridge the separation and minimize the risks. It’s not easy – “It can take 10 minutes to see us on the screen,” she laughs – but the other night her mother ate her dinner over FaceTime as her family cooked theirs in Colorado. “This is going to become a really big part of our everyday lives.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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This article appeared in the March 24, 2020 edition of the Monitor Daily.

Read 03/24 edition
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