Like most tentative and excited first-time moms, Katie, 33, had planned to enforce a few rules for visiting friends and relatives anxious to hold her newborn: Wash your hands. Don’t come over unannounced. Be prepared to help. Bring food.
But when the pandemic came to the United States and an unparalleled public health crisis unfolded, her rules changed. Katie (not her real name) lives in Washington, one of the first states to experience an outbreak of the virus and subsequent shut down.
Katie, who was due in April, and her husband needed to establish a new protocol. Would-be visitors (no friends, just close relatives) had to promise to wear masks all the time in the lead-up to the visit, practice social distancing, quarantine if they’d traveled, and wash their hands constantly. Katie felt her requirements were straightforward, and she had public health on her side. Organizations like the CDC backed up her approach. Her parents—who are themselves at an elevated risk (her mom is in her late 60s and her dad is in his 70s)—vowed to adhere to her guidelines. But their social media suggested otherwise.
“My parents have been downright compulsive liars about this whole business,” says Katie. “They have consistently told me they are ‘quarantining’ or ‘social distancing’ so that they can come visit me. However, my mom is constantly posting on Facebook activities that are neither of those.”
Katie isn’t alone in dealing with duplicitous, albeit well-meaning older relatives. A quick Google search reveals a stunning number of “how-to” guides aimed at helping adults navigate their frustrations when their parents fail to adhere to mask mandates and social distancing guidelines. Michael Schulman, a writer for The New Yorker, couldn’t believe his parents went to a restaurant in March. Joe Pinsker wrote a guide on how to convince relatives to get serious about the pandemic for The Atlantic.
But from a deluge of misinformation handed down from the Trump administration and amplified via right-wing media to ever-changing local guidelines, loneliness, and now months of limited social contact and mask-wearing, it’s become more and more difficult to convince the pandemic-fatigued to continue to follow best practices. It is of course hard for all of us—from teens missing their friends to millennials navigating dating or raising small children or both at once. But older people—grandparents, for example—in particular seem to be struggling.
Katie’s daughter is her parents’ first grandchild, so she understands their desire to spend as much time with her as possible. But when she reiterates how serious the pandemic is, her concerns are brushed off as “first-time parent jitters,” Katie explains. And she’s tired of the gaslighting.
“We ended up getting into a huge fight with my parents when they insisted that they knew more than I did because they ‘just watched a press release,’” she says. “I’m a nurse and have been closely following all the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) literature, as well as many other healthcare resources. They told me I was overreacting and that this wasn’t a big deal.”
“The thought of doing something for a short amount of time feels sort of doable,” Jessi Gold, MD, MS, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, says. “But when people started realizing, ‘Hey, this isn’t ending and there is a more uncertain aspect to all of this than I realized’—this might go on for years, not just months—there becomes this sort of initial anxious agitation. And then I think people sort of weight risks and benefits.”