In anticipation of an afternoon visit, Sacha Wilson sent her parents a text message Saturday morning: “I hope you guys aren’t going to the gym.”
When he arrived, Ms. Wilson’s father let it slip that they had in fact been to the gym, then out to a restaurant with friends, then stopped to grab a bottle of wine en route to another friend’s house.
Ms. Wilson, 33, was livid as she mentally tallied all the people potentially infected with the novel coronavirus with whom her parents had come into contact. She’d been inundating them for days with links to articles and podcasts about the importance of social distancing – minimizing close contact with others – to limit the spread of COVID-19 and was annoyed they weren’t listening.
Her mother, Miriam Amaladas, 61, thought her daughter was being paranoid. They’d survived SARS, H1N1 and MERS – now, because of some new virus, she was supposed to halt the dinner parties, the church groups, the group workouts?
“It’s tough for us. We’re social,” she said. “It’s kind of cramped our style.”
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The pandemic has provided a new outlet for generational tensions, which can go in many directions. While university students disobeyed public-health officials and their parents to partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Kingston, Ont., on the weekend, for example, defiance has flowed the other way, too.
The older set, predominantly baby boomers, who are healthier and more active than their parents were at the same age, can take offence to what they see as infantilization from their children; but members of generations X, Y and Z worry that mantras such as “70 is the new 50” have given their parents a false sense of security.
The fatality risk for COVID-19 is often reported as 2 per cent, but that’s for the overall population, pointed out Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Sinai Health System and the University Health Network.
"As soon as you start getting in your 60th, your 70th and your 80th-plus [year], we start seeing those death rates go into the 3-, 8- and and 15-per-cent range,” he said. Some seniors have responded to COVID-19 by barricading themselves in their homes, while another set, he says, “are thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’ ”
As Barb Choit, 42, read news in mid-February about the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which the coronavirus eventually spread to more than 700 of those on board, she couldn’t help but bring it up every time she called or messaged her parents, seasoned cruise-goers, who had a voyage coming up in mid-March.
Her parents, both in their 70s and with underlying health conditions, were quick to dismiss her concerns: Thanks to a friends-and-family discount from a relative, they’d been loyal to the Holland America cruise ships for two decades. Barbara, they told her, these ships are clean and professionally run. There was no need to worry.
They were going to drive from Vancouver to Seattle and then fly to San Diego before boarding the ship, which would take them to Mexico and back. Ms. Choit brought up that there had been outbreaks in Washington state and California, but they said they would be quickly passing through and told her not to worry.
As the cruise drew closer, Ms. Choit sent a text message to her sister, a doctor in Australia.
“Okay they’re [expletive] insisting on going on this cruise. They’re flying to a ship in Seattle where the outbreak that killed a bunch of seniors is still happening. What do you think? Is this an intervention situation?”
But Ms. Choit’s mother, Deborah, says she and her husband elected to cancel after Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer advised against it, not because of any intervention from their children.
“She’s worried about her parents and their dotage and we’re saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got common sense,’ " the elder Ms. Choit said. "She was wasting my time and nervous system texting me all the time.”
Janice Keefe, a professor of family studies and gerontology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, cautioned against the children of seniors taking a paternalistic approach when discussing COVID-19 with their parents.
“We don’t want to put our older parents at risk. At the same time, we have to recognize that ... if they have their own capacity to make decisions, those decisions should be respected, as long as it’s not putting anyone else at risk,” she said. “But you know, in this case, maybe it is.”
After reviewing some of the links her daughter sent, it was the material on transmission rates that got through to Ms. Amaladas: That if she was infected, she might require a ventilator at the hospital, which were in short supply. That even if she recovered, she might pass it along to friends. She agreed to stop going out. Still, it was tough to be lectured by her daughter.
“It’s kind of like reverse parenting because here we’ve been used to parenting her for so long and making sure she’s okay and this and that and now it’s like, oh, somebody cares about our health and what we’re up to?”
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referenced Barb Choit saying her sister called their parents to insist they not go. In fact, Ms. Choit says she was mistaken and her sister did not call.