Published 3: 20 PM EDT Mar 18, 2020
During normal times, life for Toni Campbell is pretty predictable: the retired teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, has lunch with her friends, hits a jazzercise class and takes care of her grandkids.
But the coronavirus outbreak has upended all of that. Restaurants have closed, so no lunches. She can’t figure out how to find jazzercise classes online. And because of her age – 73 – and her husband’s medical problems, Campbell’s daughters have told her they have to stay away from the grandkids.
Campbell understands that her daughters are trying to protect the elderly couple from catching the virus, but it’s difficult for Campbell not to help with the kids. She admits she’s not dealing well with the new restrictions.
“I’ve been taking care of them for 13 years. Our daughters have very challenging jobs, and that causes us to have (the grandchildren) a lot more than usual,” Campbell says. “But they’ve been very emphatic. ‘You can’t go out, don’t go to the groceries, don’t go to Costco.’ We say, ‘OK.’ But I’m not used to being so alone.”
As coronavirus continues spreading across the country, more parents are working from home and more children are staying home from school. Usually, that’s when grandma and grandpa would step in to help take care of the kids. But since COVID-19 is particularly lethal for the elderly, thousands of families are being forced to survive without that help to try to keep the grandparents isolated and safe.
James Cook says he could really use some “Mom Mom” time right about now.
The information technology consultant has spent the week trying to establish a new routine for his family in Newark, Delaware. He works from his home office and his wife, a project manager at a pharmaceutical company, has set up her makeshift office in the living room.
But with three young boys and an “energetic” golden retriever named Thor stampeding around the house, Cook says this would be the perfect time for the grandparents to lighten the load.
His in-laws in Virginia would normally jump at the chance to drive up and help, but they’re in their 70s and Cook doesn’t want to endanger them. His mother, who the kids call “Mom Mom,” and father-in-law live 10 minutes away, but she’s 66 and has dealt with heart issues so they’re keeping her away, as well.
“I was trying to think of anything in my lifetime that would be comparable, as disruptive, and I’m struggling,” Cook says.
His mother got so desperate to see the kids that on Tuesday she brought over some groceries, left them on the porch, and talked to her grandchildren through the glass storm door.
“They were just talking through that door,” Cook said. “It almost felt like they were prisoners.”
The stress increases even more in families where the grandparents live at home.
In New Orleans, Samantha Euraque has been trying to juggle work requirements, improvised school schedules and health precautions in a house crammed with her husband, their two children, her brother and her 77-year-old mother.
Euraque, who is shifting to working from home this week along with her husband, said the first challenge was convincing her mother and her children that they have to stop hugging each other or making any kind of contact.
“They are very huggy,” said Euraque, 41, a program administrator who works in HIV and hepatitis C care.
That’s been a challenge for her mother, who was quarantined in a hospital for a year in her 20s when she got tuberculosis. That history made it somewhat easier for her mother to understand what needed to be done, Euraque said, but it clearly revived some troubling memories for her.
“She was making really odd jokes. I could just see that she was shutting down a little bit,” Euraque said. “I kept telling her, ‘We’re just trying to protect you.'”
Now, everything has changed in the house. The nightly routine always included the kids curling up in bed with their grandmother to watch some TV before they go to bed. That’s over. The kids can’t touch her. The grandmother makes them food, but leaves it on the table and walks away.
Euraque is left struggling with the “mental gymnastics” of figuring out what the kids have touched, what her mother has touched, and how to minimize exposure between them 24 hours a day. One problem is bath time: Euraque doesn’t know what to do since the kids and their grandmother share a bathroom.
“Should we move the kids to shower them in our shower?” she said. “But if you get in the shower you get clean, right? But you touched it on the way in, so how long does (the virus) stay on the surface?”
All those restrictions and concerns have weighed heavily on the kids, as well. The boy has been having nightmares about giving coronavirus to his grandmother.
“We are living in a ridiculous situation,” Euraque said. “I don’t know how long this is going to last. I feel like we’re losing our minds slowly.”
In each case, the families are figuring out ways to cope without the grandparents.
Cook and his wife have set up a new schedule for the kids and block off time on their work calendars for family duties. They swap childcare duties back and forth throughout each day. His coworkers are accustomed to teleworking, so he can easily jump off a conference call if his wife has to jump on one of her own.
“I can catch up after the kids go to bed,” he said.
Euraque said her 9-year-old daughter has appointed herself the teacher and supervisor of her 6-year-old brother. That means she controls the schedule and makes sure that her brother, and her parents, adhere to it.
“I was working in the back and they came outside to jump on the trampoline. I said, ‘I need you all to be quiet,’ and she said, ‘This is our recess time, you can take your laptop inside,'” Euraque said. “And I was thinking, ‘She’s not wrong.’ So I went inside.”
In New Mexico, Toni Campbell got permission to take her eldest granddaughter, 13-year-old Dylann, out for a daily walk with the dog. Toni Campbell doesn’t touch the leash, only Dylann does that. They stay six feet apart. But during those short walks, they talk, they vent, and they maintain their relationship.
“We just walk along talking, not even next to each other on the sidewalk. She walks much faster than me, so I’m usually behind her,” Toni Campbell said. “Then we sit in the back patio table drinking our water and we stay six feet apart. That’s just so hard when you’re used to them sitting on your lap.
“It’s very hard. And I just think it’s going to get much more lonely.”