Should I see grandparents? Advice for visiting older family members

The decision to visit grandparents or aging parents, when doing so might put them at risk, is not an easy one. Evaluating the risks and benefits of seeing older family members first depends on what you are choosing between: visiting grandparents now vs. three weeks from now, or visiting now vs. when a vaccine is available are two very different choices. Deciding which options you are comfortable facing is the first step to making choices about seeing aging family members.

If you decide that you do want to see your family before there is a vaccine available (as this may take quite some time—see our vaccine explainer for more information and updates about vaccine development), there are more and less safe ways to get together.

If your older family members live close by, you might consider meeting them outside (for a hike, a walk, or sitting in a park). You can make this as safe as possible by wearing masks and not touching each other. If you do this, the risk of spreading the virus even if one of you is infected is really, really small. Is it completely impossible? No. But it’s likely to be well within the risks that you have implicitly accepted by, say, driving to the meeting location.

If your older family members have to make a longer drive to see you and your family, you should consider quarantining for two weeks before they visit and asking them to do the same. If they drive up without stopping this would really mitigate the risk on both sides.

Other situations are harder. Let’s say your older family members need to fly to see you. Being on airplanes entails risk to them, and risk to you once they arrive. But there are still things they can do: wear a mask, wash or sanitize frequently, and avoid buying food or eating in the airport. You can see our question about flying during COVID-19 for more tips about traveling safely.

After they arrive, you should think, is there a way to quarantine them even for a few days? Although official quarantine guidelines are 14 days, most infections seem to show up within the first five. Could they find an Airbnb for a few days before seeing you?

If you are concerned about aging family members’ risks when flying, consider going to them instead. Given that the virus is less serious in younger people, it may make more sense for you to travel rather than them, and quarantine briefly once you arrive if possible.

It is also worthwhile to think about the timing of seeing your older family members in relation to other plans you have for you and your family. Let’s say that if summer camp opens, you plan to send your kids. They’ll be at a higher risk of infection at that point than they are now (head over to our Path of the Virus explainer for more in-depth information about why). It may be safer to see grandparents now, while everyone in your family is still staying at home, rather than in a month after more places begin to re-open.

If you’re still not sure of which choice you’re facing (waiting for a vaccine or seeing your aging family members before that point), you’ll want to consider how large the risk of visiting older family members really is. If you think about the risk to your dad of visiting, it comes down to whether you’re infected, how likely you are to spread it, and the risk that he becomes seriously ill if he’s infected. There is also a corresponding risk to you and your children.

However, we do know that serious illness and death vary tremendously by age. The risk of serious illness in younger people is much smaller than in older people. If your parents are in their early 60s, they are at much less risk than if they are in their late 80s. And your kids are at quite limited risk (see this explainer for more about the risks of COVID-19 in kids).

Once you know the risks, another important consideration when making this choice is the benefits of seeing your older family members. These benefits might be practical: your parents could provide child care. Or the main benefits might be mental health related. For many of us, this virus is taking a huge toll on mental health, one we probably are only beginning to recognize. Staying connected to our families is important, and the joy of seeing them can be a huge benefit! It is not easy to compare “0.5% risk of serious illness vs. joy,” but in the end, this is the type of decision you will have to make. Take a deep breath, look carefully at your risks and benefits, make a choice, and then do what you can to mitigate the risks of that choice.