The Pandemic That Reversed Parent-Children Roles Overnight

28 Apr 2020

The Pandemic That Reversed Parent-Children Roles Overnight

Read time: 5 minutes, 57 seconds

Restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic may gradually loosen, countries will start opening their borders, and social and economic activities will slowly begin anew. But life will not be the same, warn experts. The novel virus, unknown to us until just a few months ago, is here to stay. Even when a successful preventative vaccine arrives, it will continue to circulate: coronavirus is now part of the extensive family of germs that affects human beings.

The world population has largely adapted admirably to the circumstances, following government-imposed measures to control the outbreak, adjusting to temporary confinement, and taking distance from friends and family members. For many, the pandemic has brought pain, anxiety, loneliness, and fear at the thought of the future and what it may bring for our most vulnerable loved ones.

For young people who have felt relatively safe during the crisis, even if they were to become infected, it may have come as a shock to learn just how much more susceptible their parents were to the illness and to death from COVID-19. Suddenly, relationships between children and their parents changed, with the former assuming new responsibilities they never had before.

Now, they’re the ones in charge of protecting their older and even their not-so-old loved ones, convincing them not to go to the grocery store or meet their neighbors for a drink and making sure they follow all the new hygiene measures. And even parents who consider themselves tech-savvy may depend on their children to help set up online conferences or video chatting.

Social distancing has been an effective public health tool during the pandemic. But older people may feel the adverse effects of isolation more than others. Sure, we have the technology to communicate and stay in touch, but what happens to those who don’t own smartphones, or don’t know how to use them?

A Change In Roles

As the world hunkered down at home to maintain social distancing, young people began to understand just how important it was for their elders to remain connected through technology in order to maintain their general well-being, meet any needs, and protect their health.

The change in roles was almost abrupt, generating frustration and miscommunication across families. Children became engrossed in sharing information with their parents, sending them statistics, checking in on them via text throughout the day, asking whether they needed anything, if they were going outside, wearing gloves and masks, washing their hands, working out...

Young boy in a blue shirt laying on a gray couch while video chatting with his grandmother through a tablet
Woman on a video chat call with family waving at them through the phone

But many older people, contrary to what younger generations might believe, are not easily frightened by a pandemic. In fact, they feel safe, optimistic, and pragmatic. They think they’ve been through nearly everything in life and know exactly what they have to do. Those who remain active and fit and plan on continuing to work well into their 70s consider themselves independent, and in many cases, they still take care of their children as well as their elderly relatives.

As the fearful virus advanced throughout the globe, the first tests confirmed that most young people’s fears were not overblown: the illness caused by coronavirus became more deadly with each decade of life, demonstrating how dangerous COVID-19 could be in older patients.

The Frightening Figures

Before the coronavirus spread to more than 100 countries worldwide, the earliest statistics from China, where the outbreak began, suggested that older adults were the most vulnerable to the worst effects of the disease. Of those who died, 33% were between 60 and upwards of 80 years old. Then came the numbers from Italy, the second country hardest hit by the virus, where the average age of people who died from the virus was 79.5.

In a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) about the outbreak in China, the case fatality rate among people who did not report pre-existing chronic conditions was 1.4%. That percentage spiked for groups who did suffer from additional conditions: 13.2% among those with heart disease; 9.2% for diabetes; 8.4% for hypertension; 8% for chronic respiratory disease; and 7.6% for cancer.

In general, though, respiratory illnesses can be particularly dangerous for those with cardiovascular disease. As it is known, when the lungs can’t function correctly, the heart has to work even harder. Diabetes has also been shown to damage the nervous system and stifle the body’s efforts to clear infections in the lungs. 

“It continues to look like older people with coronary heart disease or high blood pressure are more likely to develop more severe symptoms,” says Dr. Eduardo Sánchez, Chief Medical Officer for Prevention at the American Heart Association (AHA).

“Stroke survivors and those with heart disease, including high blood pressure and congenital heart defects, may face an increased risk for complications if they become infected with the COVID-19 virus. People with diabetes, compromised immune systems, chronic lung diseases and other underlying conditions also may be at risk of more severe illness, according to the  CDC,” adds Dr. Sánchez.

Other issues associated with aging can also play an important role. Older people may have trouble coughing and sneezing, which makes it harder for them to eliminate the virus that causes COVID-19. Lung damage accumulated over time in older adults, due to habits such as smoking or breathing polluted air, can render them even more vulnerable.

Each family must carefully evaluate and weigh the risks brought on by the unexpected crisis, which puts older people’s health at higher risk. How should we care for our mother or father from a distance? Are they mentally and physically prepared? What do they want? Some may think they can make decisions on behalf of their parents, but the truth is many older adults still can and want to continue choosing for themselves.

Tips for Children and Caretakers

  1. If your parents are older adults, you should become familiar with the guidelines and advice provided by official public health organizations. Emphasize the need to practice preventive measures on a daily basis, if necessary.
  2. Talk to your older parents about what they can and can’t do, depending on their overall health and whether or not they have pre-existing medical conditions.
  3. It’s not a bad idea to have a phone call with your parents’ doctors to better understand their health and decide the best course of action together.
  4. Make sure you know which medications they’re taking and what they are for.
  5. Keep in mind that any decisions you make could change as the pandemic evolves.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a third of deaths in people over 65 years old is due to infectious diseases. Even a common infection such as influenza (the flu) could be more dangerous in older adults than in others.

Now, we have the novel coronavirus to contend with. The care of your parents will become more critical, at least until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, likely within the next two years.

Sources: How Vulnerable Are Patients With Cardiovascular Disease to COVID-19, Flu Complications?Coronavirus precautions for patients and others facing higher risks

Cómo afecta la soledad a los adultos mayoresAARP, Consejos para el cuidado a larga distanciaCaringbridge, 13 Ways to Connect With Others While Social Distancing

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