Long Reads

Panicking about your parents and coronavirus? Read this first

As the coronavirus pandemic continues and lockdown persists in the UK, the time has come to consider our plans for our parents’ care. But how can we do that, while isolating at home and practising social distancing? Stylist speaks to three experts to get the best advice.

“I’m beginning to get really scared now.”

My mum’s voice on the phone sounds uncharacteristically shaken as she tells me that, while she’s not one for panic buying, she has ordered an extra loaf of bread for the freezer, “just in case”.

When you consider that there have been 1,651 deaths (number correct at time of publishing) connected to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK – her anxiety is most definitely not unfounded. Especially as most of the deceased have been people aged 60 and over. 

At the beginning of the crisis, Boris Johnson even said that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”, so many of us are understandably worried for the safety of our older family members: grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles etc. 

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I have been trying to help my mum keep things in perspective by pointing out that Johnson also said that although the disease was “particularly dangerous” for older people, the vast majority would experience just “a mild-to-moderate illness”.

Data from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention shows older people are more likely to fall seriously ill with the virus, but even though the death rate for those aged 60-69 is higher than for younger age groups, it is still just 3.6% in China (figure correct at the time of writing). 

Coronavirus: official advice says that pensioners do not yet need to self-isolate.

The latest instructions from the government advise against leaving our homes to visit anyone, including family and friends, especially if they are over 70 or have one of the health conditions listed here.

The UK as a whole is on lockdown and people have been requested not to make physical contact with anyone outside of their households, while social areas such as pubs, restaurants and gyms have been closed. A few weeks ago my mum decided to avoid using public transport and some older people are now necessarily taking even more drastic measures to protect themselves. Caroline, a freelance marketer from London, is worried about her partner’s parents, who are aged 65 and 75.

“My partner’s father has Parkinson’s and her mother has asthma, so they are both absolutely terrified of catching the virus,” she says. “Her father doesn’t leave the house at all, while her mother wears a mask and gloves whenever she does go out, which is rarely.

“I went to visit them two weeks ago and they refused to hug me – I had to leave my shoes at the door because she was afraid if anyone sneezed on the ground outside, I would carry it in and infect the dog.”

Abi, a reception class teacher, has had to change her birthday plans due to concerns about her parents travelling. She is from Birmingham, but currently lives in Belgium and had been looking forward to seeing her parents next week.

“My mum and dad had their face masks ready for the Eurostar, but yesterday we all decided that they shouldn’t come. My mum has autoimmune lupus, she’s in the wrong age bracket and she’s taking immunosuppressants,” she says. “The idea of them coming here or travelling anywhere in general was starting to worry me quite a lot.”

Coronavirus: “My mum lives nearly three hours away on the train, and I’m worried about her because she lives on her own.”

Hollie, a journalist living in central London, is worried about her mum.

“My mum lives nearly three hours away on the train, and I’m worried about her because she lives on her own,” she says. “As she’s over 60 and works at various surgeries throughout the day, I feel she’s more at risk with corona. 

“She also has not been told she can work from home, which I find infuriating more than she does. After speaking to her last night, I’m going to check in everyday, not just to see if she’s OK, but to keep her company.”

Our parents nursed us through countless childhood viruses and took steps to protect us from preventable illnesses. Now it’s our turn to care for them, but how can we do that? 

Coronavirus: how to protect your parents

Stylist asked Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, Donna Buxton, head of research at the International Longevity Centre UK and Karin Sieger, a London-based psychotherapist, for their advice.

Coronavirus: If you're worried about your parents, the following advice should help.

What preventative measures should you take when contacting your parents?

The government is now advising us all to avoid visiting or seeing family and friends in person, but Buxton says it is still important to keep in touch, even if it has to be via phone calls and emails.

“It’s widely known that many older people can feel both isolated and disconnected from their communities, so it’s really important for people to have as much social interaction as they usually do with the people they care about and for this to always be the case, coronavirus or no coronavirus, but still following Public Health England guidance,” she says.

Coronavirus: “If it’s safe to do so you can pop in to visit people, but you can also stay in touch over the phone, online or by post.”

How can you support your parents during quarantine?

“If someone has been advised to self-isolate, there are still plenty of things you can do to help, like picking up some shopping or running some errands,” says Abrahams.

“Some older people, or those with underlying health conditions, have already or may decide to reduce their social contact. We should respect people’s decisions and think about practical ways to support them. You can also stay in touch over the phone, online or by post.”

Further advice for self-isolating can be found on the NHS website here.

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What should you do if your parent(s) develop a fever?

“Call 111,” says Buxton. You will then be given advice on how to look after them and whether they need testing for Covid-19.

Buxton says that current guidance from Public Health England is that if people have no reason to suspect they have been in contact with someone with coronavirus then there is no reason for them to stop their normal activities.

If your parents look after your children, should you stop them temporarily?

As social distancing measures come into place, you will need to make alternative childcare arrangements if your parents are aged over 70 or have underlying health conditions. With the new rules announced by the government last week, you may also need to consider doing this even if your parents don’t fall into one of the “at-risk” groups.

If your parent(s) are anxious about coronavirus, how can you help to keep them calm?

“Help reduce areas of uncertainty and stress, by keeping on top of coronavirus-related developments yourself, so you can explain all relevant detail,” suggests Sieger. “Discuss and rehearse what the implications of self-isolation might be for your parents and for you.

“Parents also tend to worry about their children and family, so be reassuring and be mindful that your own anxiety around coronavirus may impact your parents. Is there something that you may need to address within yourself first?

“Conversations need to remain balanced, and also focus on the good and nice things, to help ensure there is a sense of continuity versus impending doom and gloom.”

Further information on steps you can take to protect older people can be found here

Please remember that this is an evolving situation and the advice may well change, so it’s important to keep up to date with reliable sources of information such as the NHS website.

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