Grandparenting: Navigating risk as the pandemic continues – Harvard Health Blog

At the end of March, as the pandemic reshaped all of our lives, I wrote a blog post on how grandparents could cope with the safety recommendations made at that time while still staying in contact with their families. Many of us hoped that the crisis would be short-lived, allowing us to return to “normal” before too long. Now six months have passed, and as a reader recently wrote to me, “we grandparents are confused.”

So, with fall here and winter on the way, what’s next for grandparents? People with serious health conditions may find that not much has changed since March – it’s always safer to limit in-person contact with grandchildren and the outside world. For grandparents who have been able to connect outdoors with their families for bike rides, meetings in a park, shared meals outside – or even vacations together – new decisions emerge when grandchildren are returning to preschool or school, spending more time with other children and other families. Given what we currently know about COVID-19, how can we consider decisions about the risks and benefits of grandparents, and then navigate them with our adult children?

Do the basics

We all benefit from taking basic preventative measures: hand washing, physical separation, meeting outdoors when the weather permits, and wearing a mask. It is also important that everyone in the family get the flu shot this fall. Fortunately, the same steps that help protect us from COVID-19 also help protect us from the flu and other illnesses.

Balance Safety Stacks and Hazard Stacks

As pediatrician Aaron Carroll wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times, we can group our actions into safety stacks and risk stacks. Like many experts, he advises trade-offs: if we are doing something that involves some risk, it is wise to balance it with low risk behavior. What this can mean operationally is that if you do decide to see your grandchildren inside, you can also decide to limit your shopping in stores further or spend time in public. And you can ask your kids to limit their contact with their friends and their own adventures further.

Keep conversations going

Could it be that we could all have a conversation with our grown children and be done with it. At this point in the pandemic, most grandparents have discovered that conversations around COVID-19 are ongoing. At first, many were faced with a heavy dose of protectionism: their adult children were tasked with protecting them. Many of these protectors have since relaxed, in some cases so much that grandparents now find themselves in a position to advocate for caution.

Grandparents need to be clear with their adult children about what they consider safe and unsafe – and somewhere in between. Many find it helpful to talk regularly about what everyone in the family is doing, not doing, and planning to do. For example, if grandparents feel that it is not safe to eat at an indoor restaurant or attend dinner with friends, they may choose to quarantine the grandchildren for 14 days after the event.

Avoid judgment

One of the many challenges of the pandemic has been to avoid judgment on the decisions of others. When it comes to having candid and productive conversations with adult children, it’s especially important to avoid being judgmental. You may think your son needs to go to the dentist. On the other hand, you can see his doubles tennis game as useless. Part of your agreement with your adult children is that you will not judge or criticize their decisions, but you should be free to deny some child custody requests (like in the doubles game) and to accept others. (like at the dentist). And if you find that certain choices put you at worrying or unacceptable risks, you should be free to share that information and not collect it if the risks outweigh the benefits.

I know everyone reading this will join me in hoping that the pandemic is behind us in the not too distant future. In the meantime, we all keep getting confused, making the best possible decisions at some point. Staying on top of up-to-date medical information about the virus and how it is affecting where you live is essential. Talking to your health care team about your personal risks and decisions can also help. As we head into fall, many of us are visiting and reviewing, working and reworking the rules and conversations about how to view our grandchildren. I believe we will all do our best to make decisions that help keep everyone healthy.

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Jothi Venkat

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