Making What’s Hard a Bit Easier; Seven Strategies to Improve your Relationship with Your Parents During COVID-19
It’s mid-May, so those of us in Virginia are entering week 6 of stay-at-home orders. Many of us have parents or close relatives that we cannot visit, either because they or we are isolating due to COVID-19. First of all, give yourself credit for all the changes you have adjusted to. It’s a lot, whether you are at home by yourself or with other family members, roommates, or friends.
Your parents may be older seniors in various states of physical and mental health, of the company of others, or desire or ability to see people. Some of them may be extroverts who are having a very hard time coping with staying at home and social distancing.
Some of them may not be social distancing the way that they need to, or that you think they need to. If you have already had the conversation with them about why this is important, you may need to come to terms with the fact that at this point, you cannot control their behavior, only your response to it.
If you need to set limits on seeing them because their behavior puts you or another loved one at risk, it may help to state this, not as a judgment (e.g., “I’m not going to visit you because you are being stupid” is not heard as well as, “Mom, I understand that playing tennis is important to you and your friends. You understand those risks, and I may not like your decisions, but I need to accept them. Please likewise understand that I need to stay isolated due to my health concerns, so we can look at other ways we can connect that are not in person.” If they accept this, obviously that’s easier than if they don’t. But ultimately, we need to acknowledge our own needs and own these decisions.
If they don’t, or they get defensive, try not to get hooked into an argument that doesn’t change their behaviors. Yes, this is hard. But, do you want to spend this time in a tug-of-war with them, or do you want a different relationship with them?
They may be in varying degrees of digital ability or access. They didn’t grow up during the digital age, after all. Come to think of it, neither did I! But here are some ways you can stay connected with them, regardless.
What is most important to many of our parents, is their legacy. What they feel they have accomplished or valued in life?
The larger portion of their lives is behind them, not ahead. This does not mean they don’t have meaningful days or plans; of course, we all need to have that! But it means that a big way to connect with them now is through their sense of legacy. So these are ways to do it.
First, ask yourself this: When I look back on this time, during this crazy year when I couldn’t see my parents like I wanted, what do I want to know that I did? What do I think I’ll be happy I did (or didn’t do)?
- Start with the Practical: Work out a daily “check-in” plan with them, such as texting or calling you daily by 12noon, so you all know you are ok, conscious, and that if you don’t hear from each other, you’ll give a few hours grace period before calling another person they have regular contact with. If you still get no answer, the next step will be 911. Again, discuss this with them as good planning.
- Work out a contingency plan for “if you (or they) get sick”, with a list of who to call, what medications to pack, and a list of medications, doses, and doctors that they can share with you. In the event that they do become unwell, you will be prepared and will have this on hand.
- Now that that’s done, work on increasing the satisfaction quotient of your relationship. For example recount an important memory you have with them. Something you experienced, learned from them, or was impressed by. Even the sarcastic and not-exactly tender folks will still find this meaningful. I’ll never forget the time I told my Dad, years ago, years before his Alzheimer’s took over, “I not only love you, Dad, but I like you”, to which he replied, “Uh…Well, that’s your problem!”
- Ask them something about their personal history. (What’s significant about the place they grew up, a job they had, etc.? Ancestry or family stories that are important? A musical instrument or sport that they played?) Even if you were not particularly close, you can still recall something about a car, work day, object that you both remember. It’s something you can do to connect with them.
- Ask them about a particular time in their life that was meaningful or game-changing for them. A time they got out of a pinch, got a great job or travel opportunity, relationship, or even an object like a car or tool that they were able to do things with. You’d be surprised at how much information you’d get out of them.What was your favorite activity together, dish that they cooked, vacation you took? Let them know what it was, and ask what their favorites are or were.
- Send them a care package. That is, if you think they will take care to wash their hands after they open it. It may contain favorite foods, books, a gardening kit, or something else that they value that they can do or enjoy. Skip the mug or tote bag, or plant unless that’s something they will particularly love. One more thing to take care of or to add to clutter, may not be as appreciated.
- Ask for advice. Yes, the thing that most parents give, unsolicited, in spades, our entire lives, right? Whether it is advice on how do they make that particular soup, what can they suggest for painting or fixing your home? Career advice – what was the best thing they did that helped them advance in their job, or keep it at the right time? And just let them give it. (Yes, there are times their advice may have driven you crazy. That’s the nature of things!) If they can walk you through making a recipe, fixing an appliance, or some project while you are both on the phone or video calling, so much the better. This often drives their sense of purpose and gives you both an activity to do together. Which can also help to give them something to look forward to doing, in an area where there expertise or interest lies.
- Ask what would they like to be known for. By you, people in their line of work or faith community, their grandkids? And if you can, get some (or all) of this on tape or write it down, even in bullet-points.
Granted, you will still be concerned about your parents. But these strategies will likely bring you a more satisfying relationship with your parents these days. You may find that if you make these strategies your project, stress and conflict with your parents may go down quite a bit. Instead of a power struggle, your relationship may have a renewed sense of purpose. As hard as this may be, ask yourself, “where is the opportunity here?”
Stay in touch with your supports in the meantime. Take care of yourself, and see you next month!