After nearly four months of “pandemic life,” I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all grown more than a little weary. We’re bored and lonely. We’re exhausted by decision fatigue and we miss our typical routines. But even more than that, we miss our loved ones, the family and friends we don’t share a home with.
Some of us are fortunate to live near our extended family. We have been able to have “window visits” or waved at each other across the yard. Some folks have been able to drop food off or have their kids leave chalk drawings outside the door of grandma and grandpa’s house.
Others of us are not so fortunate. We might live hours away or across the country from our parents. We don’t just worry about them – Are they social distancing? Are they lonely? Are they able to get groceries safely? – we also miss them. And so do our kids.
There is something inexplicably beautiful about the grandparent-grandchild relationship. As a wooden plaque in my mom’s house says, “A grandmother is a little bit parent, a little bit teacher, and a little bit best friend.” Grandparents are like a hug, safety net, and cheerleader all wrapped into one. And make no mistake, these relationships are suffering in the midst of the pandemic in ways that FaceTime and Zoom calls just can’t fix.
With summer here, and some states moving into new phases of the pandemic, lots of families are considering whether it might be okay to make a trip to Grandma’s house.
First and foremost, it’s absolutely imperative to know that the coronavirus hasn’t gone anywhere. It is still here, lurking among us and infecting folks at an alarming rate. In fact, in many places throughout the country, cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. So what’s the difference between the beginning of the pandemic and now? Well, for one, we know a bit more about the virus. We can make more informed decisions about how to keep ourselves and others safe. Because no one wants to be responsible for giving their grandparent a deadly virus, do they? (Though given the number of assholes I see without masks on, I do have to wonder if they are actually okay with sacrificing Grandma for their “freedom.”)
Assuming you’re not one of the jerks who selfishly suns masks and doesn’t “believe in” social distancing, here are a few ways to safely visit Nana and PopPop:
Know the risk factors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, folks 65 years and older are at a higher risk for getting a severe case of COVID-19, and about 80% of fatal cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. have been in people older than 65. So simply by virtue of their age, grandparents are a higher risk of getting seriously ill or even dying from COVID-19.
If there are underlying health conditions – like heart disease, asthma, or diabetes, for instance – grandparents may be even more at risk. These health factors should be top of mind as you consider the risk assessment of whether and how to see grandparents. Is the risk too high? Would the fear of possible illness eliminate any sense of connection or enjoyment with the visit? Or is there a way to see Grandma and Grandpa that protects their health and still foster connection?
Assuming there is a way to safely visit, consider the following safety precautions…
Follow the two-week rule.
Dr. William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University College of Public Health, told NPR that folks should reduce their chance of infection as much as possible prior to the visit, by quarantining for two weeks beforehand. If complete quarantine (or staying home completely) isn’t possible, limit your outings and social gatherings. Practice social distancing, wear a mask whenever you’re in public, and work from home. By reducing your risks of infection for two weeks before the visit, you also reduce the risks of unknowingly infecting Grandma and Grandpa.
Drive, don’t fly.
Experts recommend driving, and avoiding public transportation including airplanes, buses and trains.
“Planes are a major concern,” Miller told NPR, despite the high level of air filtration on most planes, because you are in close quarters with so many other people. Conversely, when you drive, you limit your interactions with the public to bathroom breaks, gas station fill-ups, and fast food drive-throughs.
“I would recommend you do anything you can to limit your exposure,” Kullar says. “If you have to fill up the gas tank, put gloves on and use hand sanitizer. Pack your own food so there are no additional stops at restaurants.”
Consider getting tested.
Getting tested before a trip can give an added peace of mind before visiting out-of-town family. Plenty of states have drive-through testing options offered via the state public health department or at local drug stores, like CVS or Walgreens. But it’s important to remember that if a test is taken too early, it won’t be reliable.
“It’s important to remember testing is not perfect,” Miller says. “A test is a snapshot in that moment.”
Don’t share living spaces when visiting.
Unless you’ve been able to completely quarantine for 14 days (which means absolutely no outside contact for 14 days), it’s best not to share living spaces with grandparents. As tempting as it is to stay with loved ones so you can enjoy more time together, it’s safer to rent an property nearby for a few days. When visiting, remember social distancing practices and stay outside as much as possible.
“Sit outside, greet without touching. Keep your distance. Wear a mask and stay outdoors,” Dr. Ravina Kullar, an epidemiologist and spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America told NPR. “Transmission is a much lower probability outside, as long as you are keeping a good six feet distance apart, thanks to the constant airflow.”
Be clear about expectations beforehand.
Grandkids and grandparents are often used to lots of hugs and kisses so it’s important to be clear about what is – and is not – safe beforehand. Get your kids used to wearing a face mask before the visit and practice no-contact greetings. And prepare your parents as well – which might be harder than preparing young kids.
Keep your bubble small.
When visiting, keep the gatherings small so that social distancing can be maintained. Resist the urge to “get the whole gang together again” or to have a family reunion party. Keep it small and go slow. Unfortunately, we’ll be living with this pandemic for a while so it’s important to go small. Baby steps is key to safely moving through the process of adjusting to the “new normal.”
Is it worth it?
After considering the risks and safety precautions required, some families might be wondering if it’s worth it. For some, the answer may be “no.” Driving across the country to see a grandparent who has serious underlying health conditions is likely not safe and too risky. But driving a couple hours to see grandparents might be just what everyone needs. After all, our health relies on human connection too.
A few weeks ago, our family drove two and a half hours to see our out-of-town family. We rented a place on Airbnb so we had a place to stay that didn’t require sharing living spaces with my parents. Our get-togethers were small and outside. We wore masks and socially distanced as much as possible. We had lots of conversations beforehand about safety precautions and our kids were well-prepared for no-hugging and mask-wearing rules. While it was more stressful than usual, we all had a great time. It was wonderful to see our family in person, even if we couldn’t hug each other and we got a little sweaty under our masks.
Like just about every other aspect of our pandemic lives, visiting Grandma and Grandpa has changed, but that doesn’t mean the relationships can’t be just as strong as ever. In some ways, figuring out how to be there for each other and deal with the pandemic can bring families closer together — whether you see each other in person or not.