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How Do You Have the Coronavirus Talk With Your Parents?

If they’re over 65, they’re definitely at high risk for the illness. But that doesn’t mean they’re taking it seriously enough — and now it might be your responsibility to step in

Eileen Consedine, a copywriter in Seattle, was recently informed by her parents that they’d booked a cruise on the Danube River in Europe. It’s launching in April, her parents told her, and they had no intention of canceling their plans. “I’ve been like, ‘Yo, you’re not going, right?’ Because at 65 and 70, despite being otherwise healthy, they’re obviously ON THE WRONG END OF THE BELL CURVE,” Consedine writes over email. “And also… CRUISE IN EUROPE? They may as well start licking doorknobs.”

But no matter how much Consedine pleads — or how many links she sends them to stories about Italy’s “hospitals essentially resorting to war-time triage mode” — her parents won’t budge. “My dad just responds, ‘The media is completely overhyping this. If I get it, I’ll survive. I’m healthy,’” she explains. “I can’t help but think this is directly related to the Trump/Fox News campaign against the news. So unless it comes from Trump himself, I don’t think they’ll take it seriously.”

Consedine, of course, is frustrated. So how can she — and the rest of us youthful geniuses blursed with the ability to navigate the labyrinthian ways information is spread online — more effectively broach the subject of COVID-19 with her/our parents?

Three words, says Deborah Heiser, a psychologist who’s dedicated her career to aging and elder care: Guilt trip them. “First and foremost,” she tells me, “this isn’t overblown. It might feel overblown because we’re used to hearing about the flu each year, and that has conditioned us to think that the coronavirus, which is in the same family as a cold, is nothing to worry about. But our hospitals aren’t equipped for the numbers that fill up quickly with urgent, resource-draining care that looks different from the flu and other illnesses we see each year. And for COVID-19, the risk is very real for those who are 60 and older.”

In other words: “You’re not being alarmist, you’re being practical,” Heiser says. And to the original point, “A healthy dose of guilt never hurts.”

If your parents are planning a trip — or don’t want to interrupt their weekly three-hour trip to Costco to chat with whomever they meet — Heiser suggests presenting them with questions that force them to think through the various scenarios. “Simple questions can lead them to a perspective that it isn’t worth it to risk illness or passing on illness to others,” she explains.

If your parents aren’t traveling, Heiser advises asking them to stay home, and reiterating that they should do all the stuff the rest of us have been told to do — washing their hands frequently, not touching their faces, keeping their surfaces and door handles disinfected, etc. Better yet, she says to tell them to hunker down at (read: don’t leave) the homestead for the next few weeks. You can help them pass the time by loading them up with Netflix suggestions and checking in via FaceTime (especially if you have grandchildren for them to talk to).

In terms of warding off the fake news that so easily seems to lodge into their Boomer brains, a couple of things. For starters, it has no political affiliation. “My mom mentioned in our family group chat that she thinks Trump is trying to kill poor people on purpose with the virus,” a woman who wished to remain anonymous tells me over Twitter DM. “I asked her where she got her information about this, and she said ‘CNN, MSNBC and those left-wingers,’ whatever that means. The conversation didn’t go well. My sibling and I tried to talk her down, but she’s utterly convinced that it’s a conspiracy to kill ‘the underprivileged.’”

Second, feed them the information that even they can’t deny — because, for the most part, it’s taking place right before their very eyes. “Present the tangible facts as they stand — schools are closing, flights are canceled, universities are operating remotely, companies are asking employees to work from home, infection and hospitalization and death rates are rising daily and large venues aren’t in operation,” Heiser says.

Heiser, though, is the first one to admit that there really isn’t any “magic sauce” for this kind of talk, “other than helping parents to understand that as children, it’s stressful to worry about our parents staying safe and healthy.” And so, when all else fails, she recommends an old standby — just tell them how much you love them. “In many cases, parents need to hear how much their children care and worry about them in order to take it seriously,” she explains.

As for Consedine, not surprisingly, her parents’ cruise has already been canceled. “My dad’s immediate response was, ‘I can’t believe the hysteria the media is causing!’” she sighs, adding that they’ve still yet to take any kind of precautions — “unless you call making risotto and watching Fox News a precaution.”

She, then, can’t book them that guilt trip soon enough.