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Don't Make Them Feel Like A Charity Project: Talking To The Elderly About Coronavirus


Of course, the highest rate of fatalities from the coronavirus has been among older people, especially those with underlying medical conditions. Many younger people are begging older parents to stay home. Many are not listening.

Melissa Batchelor is the director for the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Batchelor, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Doctor, why is it we've been hearing from all over the country that some senior citizens are very resistant to heed this advice?

BATCHELOR: So I think what I'm seeing is that there's a big gap in the way people access information. So 90% of our younger adults are on social media, whereas only about 35% of older adults are using social media. Think about how you get information. Some older adults are still reading newspapers, so you're not getting updates as quickly. They may not have Internet access in their home. They may only have a landline. So all of these things play into how people are getting information, and it creates a big gap between a younger population and an older population.

SIMON: Our family has offered to try and be helpful to friends who are senior citizens, and I sense there's some pride there that gets violated by such a request. I've heard people say, what do you think I'm old? What do you think I'm weak?

BATCHELOR: Right. So I think what we're seeing play out is some ageism in both ways. But older adults often are approached in a way that makes them feel like you think that they're disabled or that they can't handle what's going on by themselves. So in a time of crisis like this, you're almost getting kind of a reversal or like a backlash of that. I also think there's a lot of fear. They've already been told that they're a high-risk population. And then you have, you know, a young person coming by to check on them, and they're not quite sure what to do. So I think that's - all that's playing into their response.

We're trying to go help - but we're trying to help other people, but they've internalized the fact that maybe society thinks that they can't handle themselves and that they're not self-sufficient.

SIMON: So they feel a little patronized.

BATCHELOR: Right. They could. I think this goes back to our approach to an older person to just say, hey - instead of saying, like, I'm coming to check on you because you're older or because you're elderly, to say, I'm - we're checking on all of our neighbors, so that you kind of normalize that - that it's not like you came to talk to them specifically.

SIMON: Yeah, so they don't feel so much like a charity project.

BATCHELOR: Right. So I think a lot of people think about older adults as one group - that they're all the same, that they're all very frail, disabled people. That's also an ageist belief. Older adults are actually a really diverse group of people. Like childhood, we have all these developmental milestones. As we age, we don't have decremental milestones. Every older adult ages differently.

SIMON: How do you tell a grandparent that now is not a good time to have your grandchild on your lap?

BATCHELOR: I actually had to make this decision myself because I think in the beginning, everyone kind of had this thought of, like, oh, it's a snow day. We've got four weeks off. Let's go see, you know, my parents, who happen to live next to my grandparents, who are in their mid-80s.

And then I got to thinking about it, and I was like, if I take the children, there's a potential they were exposed in school. If I get in my car and go hang out with my parents, who are both over 65 - they both have chronic conditions. My mother is a cancer survivor. Even though her immune system should be back to normal now, it's just not worth the risk. And then we made that decision.

And then two days later, she called me and said, I think it would be OK for you to come. And I'm like, I emotionally really, really want to come see you because I think that I could help you feel better. But at the end of the day, I'm still here in Fairfax. And I was like, Mom, I just don't think it's worth the risk. I would feel really bad if something happened.

SIMON: What do you say to the grandparent who says, look; you know, it harms me - so what? I want to see my grandchild. That's my decision to make.

BATCHELOR: Then I would say I appreciate that (laughter). Let's get on the phone and FaceTime together. I'm not going to limit your interaction with them. We're just going to have to use a different way to do that until this is over because at the end of the day, it's just not worth the risk. And it's this whole thing about risk-reward. Bringing my grandchild to see you today - I'm taking a big risk for them to sit on your lap when I'm taking the chance that they're not going to be able to attend their graduation.

SIMON: Melissa Batchelor is director for the Center of Aging, Health and Humanities at the George Washington University. Thanks so much for being with us.

BATCHELOR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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