Health and Wellness

How to talk with your older parents about the COVID-19 pandemic—and have them actually listen

MoMo Productions

As most of the world bunkers down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, more attention has turned to the groups of people who have the highest risk of getting seriously ill from the virus, such as people with chronic health conditions and older adults.

But if you're a millennial or Gen-Xer with parents who are "baby boomers" or older, you might be wondering what this means for your parents in their 60s and 70s. It's tricky territory for concerned adult children, on top of figuring out how to work from home while staying sane and managing childcare.

My mom, who turned 61 this week, lamented to me over text message that she feels vulnerable, "because all of a sudden we fit the 'old' cohort," she said.

Other parents feel more chill. Lila Battis, a travel editor in Brooklyn, says her 73-year-old mother is "in the best shape of her life right now," because she runs marathons and plays tennis. As a result, she's not that worried. "I think she sort of feels like all that stuff sets her apart somehow," she tells CNBC Make It.

Deborah Ory is a photographer who lives in Brooklyn, but her mother is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her daughter also attends college. "My daughter traveled recently and has been on the NYC subways and around tons of students, so is anxious about exposing my mother," she says. Ory's mother, who is in her 80s, is actually calm. "But she is Canadian and really tough," Ory says. "Not much phases her."

In truth, a person's risk profile can vary drastically depending upon their lifestyle. A 70-year-old who runs marathons will have a much lower likelihood of getting sick than a smoker, for example.

The reason why age is a risk factor is because of the normal changes that happen to your immune system over time, Melissa Batchelor, director of the George Washington University Center for Aging, Health and Humanities, tells CNBC Make It. "The older you get, the less ability your body has to launch an immune response," she says. And the older you are, the more health problems you tend have, which further increases your risk.

So, what's the best way to communicate with an older loved one who's stubborn? Here's what experts say you can do to help amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

Find their 'trusted messengers'

Your parents might not take your concerns seriously simply because you're their child — don't take it personally. These conversations can be strained because "your parents are going to feel that they are still capable of taking care of themselves," David Nace, chief medical officer of UPMC Senior Communities, tells CNBC Make It.

But other sources, such as their friends, communities or even favorite news outlets, might resonate more. "Trusted messengers matter when conveying public health messaging," Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health, tells CNBC Make It. Figure out where they're getting their information, and who they consider a "trusted messenger."

"If they are not using the CDC's website or information from the World Health Organization, offer to review that information together so you can all have the most accurate and updated information," Joshua Morganstein, Chair of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Psychiatric Dimensions of Disasters tells CNBC Make It. "This may help correct misinformation that alters decision-making for your family member."

Ask questions

To get a baseline assessment of how your parents feel about the pandemic, you should open the door with questions, rather than jump in with facts, Nace says. For example, "What have you heard about this condition?" or "Have you prepared at all?" If it seems like they might be underestimating the severity, then you could say, "Do you want to know what I'm worried about?" "Allowing them to invite you into the conversation sometimes is really important," he says.

You might want to tell them what you've done to prepare for the pandemic, including buying groceries, canceling plans and stocking up on at least 30 days of medications (including the ones that you don't use frequently), Batchelor says. This allows you to convey your concern for them without talking down to them or forcing them to do anything, she says. If you don't live near your family, you could offer to have their medications or other supplies mailed or delivered to them.

Tone matters

Despite the urgency you might feel, it's important to avoid pressuring or badgering family members into a certain course of action, Morganstein says. "This leaves most people feeling angry and misunderstood or inclined to more strongly defend their position, which are all counterproductive," he says.

If your family members won't budge even after you've offered information and shared your concerns, then you should respect their decision to avoid damaging relationships and keep space open for future conversations, he says.

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