Care and Feeding

My Over-60 Parents Refuse to Stay Home, Despite the Pandemic

My fiancé wants to force them, but I think it’s a lost cause. What should we do?

A man glares at two older parents looking unconcerned in the front seats of a car.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My fiancé and I are social distancing with my parents, who are healthy but over 60. We’re in a relatively unaffected state in a large rural county with fewer than 35 cases so far. (Normally we live in a major city, which is hugely affected right now.) Here’s the problem: My parents insist on going out and running errands virtually every single day, including going to the grocery store or getting takeout to support local restaurants. It’s not a massively high-risk situation—they spend most of the time in the car—but I’d prefer if they didn’t do it. I tried to raise the issue, to no avail, and have decided to make my peace with it, especially as we are staying at their house.

Here’s the rub: My fiancé is very angry about it. He thinks they’re putting themselves and us at risk and wants to sit down and make them change their behavior. I know there is no way they will stop doing it (my mother is a formidable character with an iron will) and have encouraged him to prioritize his mental health, given that other people’s actions are regrettably outside of our control. He feels unsupported. I’m not sure what to do.

—Make It Stop

Dear MIS,

Your fiancé is correct. The coronavirus is killing people who do not meet the threshold for “high-risk” that was largely touted in early reports about the burgeoning pandemic, and I would wager that those who have survived but found themselves reliant upon a ventilator to breathe would have vastly preferred a few more boring days in the house to days or weeks in an intensive care unit.

I think scaring people is a necessity right now. Find and share stories about otherwise healthy people their age who have either died or become gravely ill with COVID-19. Keep the news on constantly. Create ways to eliminate the need (real or imagined) for some of these errands and work on agreeing to a more reasonable schedule for leaving the house; say, one grocery trip and one takeout meal per week at most. Stay on top of them about proper hand-washing, sanitizing things that they bring in from outdoors, and other ways to mitigate possible infection as much as possible.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is a senior in high school and naturally is disappointed about all the things he is missing out on due to the coronavirus: school, friends, prom, and probably his commencement ceremony. But the worst part for him is being separated from his girlfriend. They talk several times each day and play video games online together, but after just a week of being physically away from each other, he is already saying we “can’t keep them apart” and that we “better let them be together.” His mother and I reassured him that as soon as things are back to normal, they can spend all their free time with each other, but he is almost past listening to us. His girlfriend is lovely, but her parents work with the public and are unable to quarantine, as they are essential employees. They also don’t mind if the kids see each other, which makes this harder. We are worried he is going to sneak (or perhaps storm) out to see her. I know a month—or more—is an eternity to a teenager, and I feel terrible enforcing this. I guess I am looking for reassurance that we are doing the right thing and seeing what you would do in the same situation?

—Romeo Must Quarantine

Dear RMQ,

You and your partner are absolutely doing the right thing, and your son is having a totally normal teenage reaction to the events that have totally upended his life. It sucks that his girlfriend’s parents aren’t taking the need to maintain distance seriously, but it’s important that you continue to be unrelenting—a funeral would be a far more horrifying end to a high school career than a canceled prom, and you have to be firm in asserting that.

Perhaps the respective parents (or one parent, from your household) can take these two lovebirds to a local park where they can see each other from a safe distance and have a sad but beautiful date from a healthy 6 feet away. However, you can only pull something like this off if you can trust that they won’t throw caution to the wind and dash into each other’s arms. Scare them with stories of COVID-19 deaths, particularly those of young people and those who had no known reason to consider themselves “high-risk.” Remind them constantly that much of the info we received early on about young, healthy people being largely safe from the virus was inaccurate and that though they may have the capacity to survive infection themselves, they still pose a serious risk to others as carriers. Don’t let them look away from the news long enough to lose sight of that. Sending you strength, for it won’t be easy to continue putting your foot down here, but it is absolutely necessary.

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am the daughter of “Grandma Needs Peace” who wrote to you a few weeks ago. I can assure you that my mother is very kind, but we are not relying on her tiny Social Security income to live; she uses that for her personal expenses, and I cover the major household bills. If it was not for me living here, in her house, then she would be homeless. Furthermore, my father passed away four years ago, and she has often told me that she is happy that my son and I are still here as she’s never had to be alone after his death.

You make it sound like I bullied her into my husband and stepson moving in. She and I had many discussions about what was expected and what life was going to be like when they arrived. If she had said no, they simply would have had to find other arrangements. I do not “insist” that my son gets a pass on his bad behavior; he is called out on it. She holds him to a higher standard than my stepson, which I believe is backward. My stepson is 23; he should be more responsible as he is supposed to be a role model. He was supposed to leave for the Army within six months of his moving in, and we are now going on four years. I have asked her to speak to the stepson on many occasions because he is rude and obnoxious to his father and me. This is still my mother’s house; he listens to her, though he does not listen to me. If I could, I would have thrown him out years ago, but she does not want that. He came here with his father because his brother had committed suicide six months prior and he was unable to cope on his own.

As for my husband, he does “perform” important household duties, such as maintaining the large lawn, taking out the trash, transporting my son to and from school, etc. When he makes sales, at least 75 percent of his earnings go to the house fund. I can also guarantee you that my mother holds me responsible for my choices. She has helped me raise my son and helped me escape from my abusive ex (his father) but has never done anything “for” me. My father was the only paternal figure in his life for years, and when he passed, my mother took on a more significant role in terms of caring for him because she’s retired and I work full time. My mother has great courage and a great heart. She and I know that we are living together until either A) my 98-year-old grandmother passes away (she and I take care of her), or B) my son graduates from school and moves, at which time I am not obligated to stay in a particular county because of his school. We are aware that we will be going our separate ways.

—Daughter of GNP

Dear DoGNP,

Thank you for taking the time to reach out; you certainly provided a lot of context that wasn’t clear from your mother’s letter (which is, of course, the nature of advice columns—we can only respond to the info we are provided with and/or can logically assume).

That said, though you didn’t ask for any advice, I do have a couple of brief things I’d like to add to what I shared with your mom.

1) Your mom likely holds your son to a higher standard because he’s her grandbaby; she has a different level of investment in his life, which she has been there to support since he was born. She also may be guided in part by her empathy for your stepson in light of his brother’s death. He’s a grown man, and there’s still something inherently wrong about his refusal to listen to you and his father while relying upon y’all for three hots and a cot; however, since you all seem to have accepted that he best receives correction from your mother, you should continue talking to her about the importance of him stepping up and how she can encourage that.

2) It’s now clearer that you are providing support for your mother that she relies upon, financially, emotionally, and otherwise. However, it’s not fair to say she has “done” nothing for you. A whole lot of mothers out there would gladly cast aside their own loneliness and lack in order to push their children toward self-sufficiency, and I hope that you recognize how fortunate you are to have a mom who has a house to shelter you in at all, even if that house requires your labor to run.

3) Despite what she may have left out, your mom wrote to us for a reason. She is feeling something that you should continue to consider, and you must work with her to create a version of this blended family that brings her the “peace” she both longs for and deserves.

Best of luck to you all, and again, thank you for taking the time to respond … and thank you for taking the time to grapple with how your mom is feeling about everything.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex and I are great friends and even better co-parents to our two boys. He is engaged to be married to a wonderful woman who loves our children immensely. The only problem: She lives out of town in a county that has recently confirmed cases of COVID-19. He plans on leaving town to be with her and getting the kids back when he returns. How on earth do I explain that this is not in the best interest of our family and community? (We currently have no cases in our town or county.) He’s very laid-back, and his general invincible attitude is troubling in this specific regard. We typically communicate well. I understand his desire to be with his partner. She has children that also split time with their parents. The exposure is far-reaching. I’d rather just keep the boys for the duration of this stay-at-home order if he is going to insist on traveling during this time. My gentle suggestion was not well received.

—COVID Co-parenting Crisis

Dear CCC,

You and the other readers have likely noticed not merely the number of letters I’ve answered that are related to the coronavirus, but also that the majority of them involve parties who are unwilling to practice proper social distancing. That is because I have decided that if there is one little thing that I can do to support the efforts of medical professionals, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, and other heroes who are doing their best to keep us healthy and safe right now, it is beating the “STAY YOUR ASS IN THE HOUSE” drum as loudly as I possibly can, to whomever may listen.

As your sister in shared custody, I know exactly how difficult it can be to adjust lifestyles to accommodate the urgent need to expose ourselves and our children to as few human beings as possible. However, it is imperative that you risk having what likely would be the rare terse disagreement between yourself and your ex in order to reduce your children’s risk of contracting this terrible virus.

It sounds like you, he, and this “wonderful” fiancée have a pretty good thing going. Remind him that keeping him away from his children is not your usual M.O. and that you would only do so under such dire circumstances. Arm yourself with statistics, tragic stories, and data, and make a polite, loving case for keeping the kids with you until he has returned and self-quarantined for the recommended amount of time before seeing them again. Assure him that FaceTime/Zoom/Skype and/or old-fashioned phone calls will be frequent and that he will have an abundance of virtual time with his children. Let him know that your concern is not merely for the health of your household, but for him, his fiancée, and her brood too. We have a responsibility to care for one another in some largely unprecedented ways right now, and I reckon I can speak for families who will have to wait quite some time to bury loved ones who are lost to this pandemic when I say that social distancing—even from moms and dads—is a small price to pay in order to make that care count.


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