But the novel coronavirus now has them sheltering in place, stuck in that electronic box, and wondering when they can drive south again. Interestingly, they think the safest time to go might be now.
“We have been quarantined, and so has our son’s family, so we believe we are low-to-no risk at the moment,” Chasen says. “But once things open up in North Carolina, and the little ones go back to preschool, it becomes more problematic for us high-risk people. So we may just hustle out like elderly masked bandits.”
These are tough times for anyone with family members of any age living apart from them, even in the same city. But it’s especially difficult for grandparents at a distance who want to maintain a strong bond with their grandchildren. Research suggests that this relationship is deeply significant for many of America’s 70 million grandparents, not just because grandparents often help their grandkids financially, but because they share their wisdom and guidance.
“Nobody loves children like their grandparents,” says Preeti Malani, an infectious-disease specialist and geriatrician, who also is professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. “They are such an important part of the lives of children, something that is so fundamental and important for both grandparents and grandchildren.”
There are no easy answers for grandparents yearning to be with their grandchildren. The situation is far from clear cut, relying on numerous factors and risk assessments, and there is no unanimity among experts on the best approach. Still, most advice challenges a grandparent’s basic instincts. Their age and possible underlying medical conditions make them vulnerable to severe complications if they become ill with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As a result, leaving home and having close contact with children right now could be dangerous, experts say.
Young children often are vectors of any number of infectious diseases, raising the specter of grandparents becoming ill while far from their homes and their regular physicians. “You don’t want to be out of town and end up with some other kind of health issue where you might have to go to a strange hospital,” Malani says.
Before considering a trip, grandparents should determine the infection rate where they live and where they are going. If it’s high, stay home, and don’t let them visit either. The problem is that it’s often difficult to get this information, as testing lags in many parts of the country.
“There are too many areas in the United States where there hasn’t been enough testing, so we really don’t know how much infection is out there in the community,” says Tina Q. Tan, medical director of the international patient services program at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Until we can test more, I think people need to keep doing what they’ve been doing and basically shelter in place.”
There may be exceptions. “If you have a situation where the grandkids and their parents have been staying home and avoiding contact, and you can travel safely, that’s probably an acceptable risk to take,” Malani says. “In fact, it actually might be a good time to visit them.”
Tan, however, disagrees. She doesn’t think it’s worth taking a chance.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says. “If they absolutely have to see grandchildren in person, then they must abide by the recommendations, which is to wear a mask and gloves, and stay six feet away. Say hello to them but don’t touch them. No hugs and kisses. Lots of hand-washing and be sure the older person is up to speed on vaccines,” including for influenza, Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) and pneumococcal pneumonia. “If you have to see them, they can’t touch you, and you can’t touch them. I know this is difficult, but even if the kids are staying home, their parents probably aren’t.”
It’s also a good idea to avoid or limit visits to newborns and young infants, experts say, painful advice for a new grandparent. “When you have a new baby, you want to hold him and cuddle him,” says Marion Dolnansky Tarasuk, 74, a retired fitness trainer who lives in Miami. “He’s only going to be that little once.”
She hasn’t seen four of her grandchildren since December, and she hasn’t yet met her newest grandson, Miles, now 3 months old. She had planned to fly to New York in late February for his birth, but her son talked her out of it. “He was very nervous and suggested I wait until mid-March,” she recalls. By then, however, the pandemic had worsened. “It actually might have been safer to go in February,” she says.
For now, she watches him grow and develop through videos and photos. “It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “Everything changes with babies, even during the first few weeks. I’ve lost those early weeks, and the first three months. He is laughing and smiling, and I’m missing it all.”
Still, if grandparents live close to the new baby, and everyone in both households has been self-quarantining, “it’s probably okay to visit,” Malani says. “The main issue is to make sure there hasn’t been any community exposure. Many hospitals also are starting to screen pregnant and laboring women. I suggest discussing any plans to visit a baby with your doctor and the baby’s doctor.”
Living in the same town can sometimes make things easier for all ages, not just when it comes to babies. But only if the infection rate is low, Malani says. Where she lives, in southeastern Michigan, infections have dropped “to a very low level . . . and we are seeing few admissions to our hospital,” she says.
Her 19-year-old son, for example, a student at the University of Michigan, moved home temporarily after his school closed but decided to return to his campus apartment and his roommates. He saw his grandparents — who live locally — before returning to campus, but hasn’t seen them since. “If he wanted to go now, I’d think twice about it,” she says. “And I’d also stick a mask on him.”
Out-of-town travel is more complicated. To be sure, being in a car limits exposure to others, but rest stops may be shuttered or crowded. If you must stop, put a barrier between such public surfaces as doorknobs, faucets and toilet and gas pump handles, or use a disinfectant wipe before touching them. For Chasen and Spero, a lengthy road trip also means finding a charging station for their electric car. “This is a concern, as well as an added half-hour,” Chasen says.
People also may feel nervous flying, or going by bus or train. Many airlines now disinfect aircraft between flights, but it’s not always possible to know ahead of time how many passengers will be on board. A packed plane raises the risk. “I wouldn’t be flying right now,” Tan says. “On trains you might be able to spread people out, but a bus is such an enclosed space that if one person were ill, it would very rapidly spread to all the other passengers. I wouldn’t want to be on a train or bus either.”
Grandparents will not find any of this advice comforting. But without a vaccine or better treatments, “it all comes down to managing risk, and in no case can you decrease the risk to zero,” Malani says. “This is the tragedy of covid-19, the loneliness and isolation, especially for older people.”
It’s still safest to connect virtually for now, experts say. “The whole country is using these modalities,” Malani says. “If you’re not comfortable with the technology, get the kids to help you. If you can’t see them in person, there are other ways to be close and stay in touch.”