Anita’s 72-year-old mom is immunocompromised, but she volunteers regularly at a hospital. That means she’s both more likely to come into contact with the coronavirus and, if she does, more likely to suffer from a severe case of the disease it causes, COVID-19. But despite her daughter’s pleas, she refuses to stop. “She doesn’t want to be inconvenienced or change her life,” Anita said. “But she wants the ‘older folks’ she knows to ‘be careful,’ and I’m like, ‘MOM, THAT IS YOU.’”
Jessica’s stepfather is 65, has multiple sclerosis, and recently underwent lung cancer surgery. His job as a truck driver takes him all along the I-5 corridor on the West Coast, including through the Seattle area. His company hasn’t issued any advisories on how to mitigate risk or change behaviors, and he’s laughed off attempts to encourage him to stock up on his medications, or even just get some hand sanitizer for his truck. “He just says he’s fine,” Jessica said, “and makes bad jokes like, ‘The safest thing is just not to breathe!’” She keeps texting him with updates and easy-to-understand articles, but thus far, it’s been of little use. “I don’t know what else to do,” she said.
Nichole’s grandmother is in her nineties and has been in poor health for some time. The family expects her to die within the next week and has begun planning a funeral service. “We’ve got a huge family, with all of her siblings over 80 and most of her kids (my aunts and uncles) over 60,” Nichole said. “And I have been trying to gently suggest we don’t have a big funeral and fly from all over the country right now.” She tried to coordinate with a few cousins to suggest a different option — to not have “a giant Catholic Mass with people from 14 states” — but the older members of the family want to do it “the right way.” “There’s a general attitude that we are making a big deal out of nothing,” Nichole said. “A lot of ‘we deal with the flu every year.’”
Right now, America seems to be divided into two general groups. There are the people who are taking the threat of the spread of COVID-19 seriously, and are doing their best to prepare and socially distance themselves from others, regardless of their current health or vulnerability. And then there are those who, for whatever reason, are resolute in their belief that the disease won’t affect them in a meaningful way, that the media is overblowing the threat, or that everyone just needs to calm down.
“There’s a general attitude that we are making a big deal out of nothing. A lot of ‘we deal with the flu every year.’”
There are multiple reasons for this split in approach, from general disposition (preparedness-minded to I’ll-deal-with-it-when-I-have-to) to one’s primary source of news and information. Add in inconsistent messaging from the government and differing “recommendations” from state to state, and it’s easy to understand why people have developed such disparate attitudes about how to proceed in their daily lives. There’s so much that’s unknown about how exactly the spread of the coronavirus will impact the United States, save to observe what’s happened in places that immediately launched extensive testing and quarantine efforts (like Hong Kong and South Korea, both of which have significantly mitigated the disease’s spread) and those that took longer (Italy and Iran).
But here’s what is clear: Even though many people who contract the coronavirus will only experience flulike symptoms, 15% to 20% will develop serious, life-threatening symptoms that demand hospitalization. The statistics from the outbreak in China are incredibly useful in figuring out who’s most at risk: “older adults” (anyone over 60); anyone with heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease; and anyone who is “immunocompromised” (a group that includes about 10 million people in the US, including those with cancer, HIV, and organ transplant recipients).
Some of those people are heeding the CDC’s advice. They’re stockpiling their medication and several weeks’ worth of food, and limiting their interactions with the outside world as much as possible. They’re canceling vacations and cruises and visits to grandchildren. They’re opting out of church and volunteer activities. And if they still work — as many in the at-risk population do — and can work from home, they’re trying to figure out ways to do so.
But so many — so many! — are not. And a lot of them are our parents and grandparents, convinced that, despite their age or health condition, they’re not vulnerable to the virus’s most severe and life-threatening effects. So why are so many of these high-risk boomers not listening — and how can we convince them to?
At this point, the resistance seems to be divided into three overarching areas: misinformation, disidentification, and general stubbornness. Like other types of contemporary misinformation, inaccurate and fake stories about COVID-19 has been spreading most aggressively on Facebook — where, as my colleague Craig Silverman has pointed out, older people are often purposefully targeted by sites and pages trafficking in hyperpartisan rhetoric and straight-up falsehoods.
One person who’s been trying to get his grandfather to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously sent me a screenshot of his latest text, which featured a picture that he’d taken of an image on his own computer. The photo is of a whiteboard, with the dates of previous epidemics, and the caption “POSTED AT A DOCTORS OFFICE TODAY.” (The information in the image has been widely circulating across Facebook and Twitter, but has been officially debunked.) “I don’t think you have to be afraid of the coronavirus,” the grandfather said. “As this post says, diseases appear every year to disrupt the voting process. It is good to be cautious but I believe it’s just another of Satan’s tactics to prevent people from following Jesus.”
Other media figures with massive followings have been telling viewers information that is either misleading or flat-out incorrect: Rush Limbaugh said that “it’s just like the common cold,” and “all this panic is just not warranted”; Infowars’ Alex Jones is has told his viewers that they can cure COVID-19 by buying his toothpaste; Fox News’ chief medical correspondent has repeatedly assured viewers that the coronavirus is “at worst” comparable to the flu, calling the officials at the World Health Organization “a bunch of alarmists.” (On March 11, the government’s leading infectious disease official testified before Congress that the coronavirus is “10 times more lethal” than the seasonal flu.)
Anyone who’s attempted to combat the spread of misinformation — about a political candidate, or school shooting, or pretty much anything — can tell you just how difficult a proposition it is. As one woman put it to me, “my parents and grandparents are on an IV drip of Fox News directly to their brains and believe COVID-19 is a hoax being used as a weapon against the president.”
In these scenarios, the best way to get through is to table the political dimension — at least for now — and appeal to their sense of self-preservation. Fox News is emphasizing that older populations and those with existing medical conditions are more vulnerable. Most recently, Tucker Carlson has countered many of his fellow Fox hosts, calling the pandemic a “terrifying situation.” If there’s a news source you know they do trust, send them information from there — whether that’s NPR, Joe Rogan (who recently hosted an epidemiologist), or the local television station.
You can also attempt to show, not tell: 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. (Then offer to help them get their hands on those items, as many might be reticent to navigate new systems, like online grocery ordering; one person told me it took an hour to complete her 96-year-old great-grandmother’s order, because she was specifying items like “five green bananas,” but it was worth it: She wasn’t going to the grocery store.)
Disidentification is equally — if differently — hard to combat, because it involves convincing someone to reconceptualize the kind of person they are. The so-called aging population is usually considered to be those over 65, just shy of the United States’ official retirement age. That population, largely made up of boomers, has exploded. But so, too, has the number of people living over the age of 85, which has grown from 2.2 million (1980) to 6.3 million (2018). Many boomers, even retired ones, think of those people as old and at risk — not themselves.
This seems to be especially true of boomers who consider themselves healthy, or pride themselves on being particularly fit or in better shape than others their age. Caroline’s dad, who’s 64 and a freelancer, feels “invincible.” “He tells me, ‘You can’t live life being afraid of everything because anything could kill you,’” she said. “That’s his general outlook.” One person told me that the thing that worked on her similarly invincible-feeling father was sending him a vivid testimonial from a previously healthy 48-year-old about how the virus hit:
Then, he said, the illness hit him “like a hurricane.”
He struggled to breathe. His lungs filled with fluid, and nurses in hazmat-style suits had to drain them every two hours.
The worst part, he said, was the feeling of choking. “You feel like you’re asphyxiating, and you’re panicking because you can’t breathe.”
He kept telling himself, “Just get through the next hour, the next hour, the next hour.”
At one point, he was aware that a priest in protective gear was about to administer last rites. He wrote a note to his wife saying that if his lungs collapsed, he did not want to be put on life support.
“I was one inch from death,” he told the WSJ on Tuesday.
“It’s alarming when I hear people minimize it as a simple cold,” he said. “It almost killed me.”
The news about Tom Hanks contracting the virus — someone whom a lot of boomers think of as their age — might also help. Another option is appealing to their sense of care and compassion for those people they consider “old” — especially if they’re related to them. “I tried to make them think of it in terms of protecting my 94-year-old grandmother,” one woman said, “because it seemed to be an impossible task to have them just take it seriously for themselves, even though they are 69 and 67.”
“My parents and grandparents are on an IV drip of Fox News directly to their brains and believe COVID-19 is a hoax being used as a weapon against the president.”
Some who are older and particularly vulnerable due to medical conditions are resistant to precautionary measures because they’re sick of conceiving of themselves in constant relation to their illnesses. A woman named Courtney told me that she’s been trying, and failing, to convince her mom — who has a serious, debilitating lung condition — to come home from a road trip. “She’s scared of losing her job,” Courtney said. “But she’s also had this lung disease for about four years and tried all the treatments. I think she’s just so tired of thinking of herself as sick.”
Courtney’s halfway across the country and feels like all she can do is keep calling — and convince her 21-year-old brother “to stop going out to raves” which could “bring COVID home to mom.” But she feels like she’s finally making some progress: Today, her mom agreed to at least look into leave options at work. “My dad, who has cancer, is trying to make sure she can,” Courtney said. “It’s just miserable.”
Others also seem to be responding to pleas to protect their grandchildren — even though current data suggests children (at least ones without asthma) are actually far less at risk for developing severe symptoms. “I waited to FaceTime my Dad until right after getting my baby (his first grandchild) up from a nap, when he looks all sleepy and pathetic,” a new mom named Kelsey told me. “Then, instead of talking about his health, I talk about how worried I am about her. ‘They say kids are okay, but there’s no data on infants.’”
“I don’t feel that great exploiting my child to manipulate my father,” she continued. “But you know, desperate times.”
You can also attempt to show, not tell: Show what’s happening in Italy and how the hospitals are overwhelmed, despite full quarantine measures.
Another woman named Jaime told me she’d had little trouble convincing her parents (in their sixties) to take preventative measures, but her 88-year old grandparents were incredibly resistant: They’re volunteering, hugging people at church, and keeping themselves as busy as possible. “I’m immunocompromised,” Jaime said. “I’ve found the best strategy is telling my grandparents they would be protecting people like me — which has at least convinced them to stop hugging literally everyone during the passing of the peace at church. They are more worried about others (and their autonomy!) than their own health.”
That tactic might also help with general parental and grandparental stubbornness. A lot of that stubbornness makes sense: Many of our elders believe they’ve made it this far in life, so they must be doing something right. Alternately, they have developed routines that, as they’ve aged, have provided them with comfort and community, whether through church, or volunteering, or getting their hair done, or simply meeting their friends for lunch. They’ve looked forward to traveling across the country to visit you (or attend a reunion, or go on a vacation, or a cruise) for months.
One man told me that his mom is about to turn 70 and spends all day every Monday as a volunteer chaplain at a women’s prison. She then comes home to her mountain community, filled with retirees, and goes to choir practice. “She and my dad have a packed weekend coming up, filled with volunteering for the Rotary, some live performance they have tickets for, and church,” he told me. “She’s a very selfless person and interacts with vulnerable communities all the time, but doesn’t see the selfish act in continuing like nothing is wrong, just because she likes to stay busy.”
Upsetting routine, and replacing it with social isolation for an unspecified amount of time — something that many older people work so hard to counteract — is incredibly difficult to stomach. You can make that easier by promising a whole lot of FaceTiming or video-chatting, and offering to show their friends how to do the same. One woman who works for a public health organization told me that she gradually seeded information to her grandparents and parents, getting them used to the idea of future self-quarantine, before they actually decided to take action.
“My dad was harder,” she explained. “I had to emphasize just how much of a risk he was being to my mom by going out. And eventually I just told him that I know he doesn’t like to overreact, and just generally thinks he’s immune to things, but that I had never really asked him for a favor, and that I was now. I needed him to listen to me, even if he didn’t want to.”
“My mom told me, ‘We are not going to stop living,’ and I said, “That is the point!’”
In some cases, the only thing that will make people take action is others forcing them to. The woman whose immunocompromised mom wouldn’t stop volunteering at the hospital contacted me again today. “The hospital sent all the older volunteers home,” she said. “My mom was a little sad about it, but we had a good conversation about safety and being around for her grandkids.”
Our parents and grandparents have spent their lives being the ones giving us advice and telling us what to do. Reversing that dynamic can feel incredibly unnatural. But even if your parents or grandparents aren’t listening now, they’re going to need you later. Keep trying, keep talking — and, if all else fails, appeal to their parental instincts. “Telling my parents I’m scared has been helpful,” a woman named Mary told me. “They’re way more incentivized to protect me from the fear.” ●