Don’t lie to your older loved ones, same as for little ones. Remember that even if you try to shield your loved ones from what is going on they will still know that something is up. They read you well, feel your anxiety, hear what you are not saying, and will generally tap into the unrest. If you tell them everything is fine, nothing is happening, they will know or feel you are lying. The risk of this is that they will feel alone in their worry, and will not trust that you will tell them the truth. You want to establish yourself as the truth teller in their life, now and always.
So what DO you say to your older loved ones?
A. Be Mindful. Consider their ability to understand if there is cognitive impairment.
All of this is especially hard on people who have loved ones with mild to severe
cognitive impairment. If this is you, be ready to explain what is happening often,
as stress exacerbates existing symptoms and your loved ones may need frequent reminders of what is happening in the world and why you may not be able to see
them now. Write notes, or have your loved one write notes while you are on
an audio or video call with them. Also consider their normal anxiety level. Often
older adults experience a general increase in anxiety as they age, especially if
they experienced anxiety as a younger adult.
B. Be Detailed. Unless they have complicating conditions like impairment or
anxiety, you want to patiently present them with details. Vague comments will
only lead to more anxiety, so sit them down and tell them what you know. Give
them time and be prepared to answer a lot of questions. If there is something
you don’t know, or can’t answer when they ask, reassure them that you will try to
find the answers together when possible. If your loved one is anxious, focus on
few details to reduce confusion and subsequent anxiety.
C. Be encouraging. You want to draw out the hope, even when telling them clear
details. For example, if you have to let your loved one know that you are suspected
to be infected, or are infected, you want to give them all the facts you can, but also
give them some hopeful sentiments. Let them know that even though the situation
can be stressful, and in some cases a little scary, no matter what happens you
will get through it together. And that he or she is not alone, even if they are
D. Be Present. No matter the cognitive capability or know-how of your loved one,
they are likely to have thoughts and feelings about what is happening. Resist
swooping in and telling them how to feel, or being quick to rationalize, fix, play
down, or interpret for them. Your job is simply to give them the space to talk to you.
Let me them vent. Validate their feelings. And then hug them (virtually if you
are not together) if they want one and tell them you will all get through this
together. Do this before you explain why their fears are unfounded, or why you
are sure their worries won’t come true. Listen first, then reassure or make a
plan together about how to address their concerns. Help them navigate through
the piles of information coming at us daily if they need it, or peruse the news
E. Be opportunistic. After you have discussed the presence of Covid-19, focus
on what you can do. When people feel anxious, it is often because the world
feels out of control. So brainstorming ideas of what they can do during this time
will help reduce anxiety. You can focus on the connection together, discuss ways to
help each other and others. Be sure to ask them what they need. If they want you
to check in with them 3 times a day, then you or someone you collectively
designate should plan for that. Remember that even though you are now a
grownup, your loved one is still in charge of loving you and is wired to want to
care for you. Even if you don’t need them to care for you, it is helpful to try and find
ways to let them in. Letting them help you will in turn help them.
Which leads me to an important part of all of this: YOU. Don’t forget to get support you may need. You may have old patterns with your older loved ones that get kicked back into centerstage during times like these. Or new patterns emerge, where you are the calm caretaker of someone who has always been that for you. Support should flow into you and out of you in equal volume. The more you get, the more you can give. You may want to pull back on the emotional part of what is going on, and stick more to the concrete facts as a way of protecting your older loved ones, and that is fine, just make sure the emotional part has someone(s) to support it. It’s got to go somewhere. More on that in another post…