Coronavirus is making millennials fearful for our parents
In a strange role reversal, people in their 20s and 30s are telling their parents they’re grounded, and reminding them to wash their hands
“Mum is going to a reunion today,” my sister texted me. “And I’m annoyed.”
It was early Saturday morning. In between digesting the latest horror stories from Lombardy and planning my own thrilling weekend of socially-distanced activities, my sister and I were engaging in our new hobby: worrying about our parents. It’s a pastime many people our age have taken up lately.
“She’s way too relaxed,” the messages continued. “They forget they are of age.”
In the space of just a few weeks, so much about our lives has changed. The formerly slow drumbeat of Covid-19 infections in Australia, like the US and UK, has become a quickening pulse, with scores of new diagnoses every day. Borders are closing, offices, schools and trains are emptying, and public life is gradually being shuttered. Those of us with the option are reorienting our lives indoors and away from others, with increasing urgency.
For many younger adults, something else has changed. All of a sudden, spooked by graphs and reports showing much higher morbidity rates from Covid-19 among the elderly, we have become deeply concerned about our ageing parents.
This anxiety is manifesting in a strange role reversal. The younger adults I know who are embracing distancing and isolation are demanding to know about their baby boomer parents’ social activities. Who are they spending time with? Where are they going? Wishing we could ground them. We’re reacting with more parental protectiveness than our free-spirited folks ever imposed on us.
“In an unsettling reversal of my teenage years, I am now yelling at my parents for going out,” my friend Brigid Delaney tweeted earlier this week.
“Mum lives for her coffees with friends,” another friend tells me, exasperated. “She said ‘we don’t hug or kiss so it’s fine’. No mum. It’s not.”
“My mom informed me that she and my dad still haven’t cancelled the cruise they’ve planned for next month,” the American writer Grant Ginder tweeted last week, “to which I replied OVER MY DEAD BODY YOU’RE GOING ON THAT CRUISE, DEBORAH.”
Though there is still much we don’t know about Covid-19, we do know it is not just an older persons’ disease. Healthy young adults have died awful deaths after contracting the virus, and many others have become gravely ill. “Even though when you look at the total numbers, it’s overwhelmingly weighted toward the elderly and those with underlying conditions,” the US’ top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said this week, “the virus isn’t a mathematical formula. There are going to be people who are young who are going to wind up getting seriously ill.”
But the huge number of deaths of elderly patients in some of the worst affected countries like China and Italy has many of us worried.
Growing older has always meant a reversal of the caring dynamic. All of us watch our parents age and become more vulnerable to illness. We know they can not be around forever. We begin taking on the nurturing roles they once held in our own lives.
But in the past few weeks, it feels like this natural process has accelerated rapidly. The protective instincts of adult children towards their mothers, fathers and grandparents, which might otherwise have developed over years or even decades, have surged almost overnight. Some people in their 20s are coming to terms with their parents’ mortality for the first time.
I spoke to two friends last week who had mothers’ they feared were particularly vulnerable – one a smoker with health problems in her 80s, the other in her 70s and undergoing chemotherapy. Their worry was palpable. Both shared their fears about their mums still going out, despite their adult children’s wishes for them to stay home. “I can’t stop her,” one said.
In these interactions, there is a sense of cosmic retribution for all that we put our parents through when we were teenagers. I have a new empathy for my parents, those nights when I know my mum would lie awake until she heard my Doc Martins clomping up the stairs after I’d been out at a party. Now we want to know our parents are staying home and following every health precaution with the same level of anxiety.
Looking after our parents is already forcing some younger adults I know to make hard decisions about limiting contact, especially for those with little kids themselves. Some have decided to stop the visits to grandma and grandpa’s house, especially while their kids are still going to school or daycare and they can’t guarantee either they or their children won’t bring the virus with them. Given the reliance so many people in their 30s and 40s have on their own parents for childcare or babysitting, this is a decision that will have enormous effects on everyone’s lives, both emotionally and financially.
Since the weekend, happily, my parents have pulled back on their social activities. They are, in their own words, “hunkering down for now”. Mum is settling in with the new Hilary Mantel. Dad is busy with DIY projects – he just built a full recording booth from scrap wood so my other sister, who does work as a voice actor, can continue to work during quarantine. It was very sweet, and very dad, and one of a few reminders I got this week that our traditional roles have not reversed entirely, not yet.
I asked mum what she thought of being bossed around by her own kids on Saturday.
“I suppose part of me is touched – if you didn’t like your parents,” she paused to laugh, “you wouldn’t care.”
“Part of it I almost find amusing,” she continued. “All those years I tried to stop you kids doing things like having those terrible boyfriends, but I didn’t, ultimately, because I knew it was just a part of growing up.”
She paused, and said in her gentle mum sort of way. “Jo, people have to be free to grow up their own way.”
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