Lonely days ahead for grandparents whose pandemic bubbles are about to burst

By | September 2, 2020

Back-to-school anxiety isn’t just affecting students and their parents. It’s also causing some distress among grandparents who are facing the loss of prized time with family.

“In many cases, their whole reason for living is their interaction with their grandchildren and their families,” Bill VanGorder, interim chief policy officer for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), told Radio-Canada on Tuesday. 

“Many grandparents, our CARP members tell us, feel like they’re back to the beginning of the pandemic five or six months ago when there was so much unknown, so much anxiety about what was going to happen.”

In Alberta, as in other provinces, students are not required masks while in class and only older students will be required to wear them in common areas. 

Efforts are being made to keep physical distance between individuals but there is no requirement to maintain two metres of space between students in class.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, has said school health measures are based on evidence showing children are less likely to have severe outcomes of the virus. But, as she added in her Aug. 24 update, “they can pass it on to older family members who are more susceptible to severe outcomes.”

That is where seniors are worried and, like so many things with COVID-19, there are many distinct layers to the impact back to school will have, VanGorder said.

For example, some families with two working parents rely on grams and gramps to watch the children before or after school, he said.

“It leaves the parents of the children themselves in a real pickle, because they can’t both go to work if one has to stay home or be home when the children come home,” he said.

WATCH | Kids going back to school in a COVID-19 world could also have an impact on grandparents

Back to school is causing distress among students, parents and grandparents, too 1:17 

‘Do the seniors move out?’

Meanwhile, there are an estimated 400,000 Canadian families living with multiple generations under a single roof, and many of those households include school-age children, he said.

“What do they do? Do the seniors move out? Do they keep [the children] home from school? There are more questions than answers,” he said.

Seniors in care homes have had many restrictions in place governing visits with family members, but even grandparents living in their own homes ended up isolated from family, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, VanGorder pointed out.

After a summer of becoming comfortable in carefully controlled family bubbles, those seniors are faced with having to limit interactions once again.

Hinshaw said that may require a move back to virtual visits with grandparents once school starts up.

“While this is a sacrifice, and may be hard for grandparents, parents, and grandchildren — it is the right thing to do to have these conversations as we move into this next phase of reopening,” she said last week.

Gisèle Pelchat says she and her husband Paul will be limiting time spent with family, including their 11 grandchildren, for the first few weeks after school returns. (Mirna Djukic/Radio-Canada)

Gisèle and Paul Pelchat in Edmonton have 11 grandchildren. They say they will be careful over the next few weeks about when, where and how they see their family.

“If everybody follows the protocols there’s no problem,” said Gisèle Pelchat, whose apprehension is increased by the fact that her grandchildren will be using school buses. 

“However it only takes a few to dispute, or to not want to participate fully, that can cause issues.”

Virtual visits, she noted, aren’t quite as satisfying as a hug, but VanGorder urged grandparents to find activities that can be done together in a digital way.

“I know one grandfather who, with his two granddaughters, is writing a children’s book. And they’re taking turns writing paragraphs and then exchanging them online so that they can all be involved in creating this book for younger members of their extended family,” he said.

“I know another grandmother who is baking with her granddaughter by phone. They both have their phones in their kitchen, they’re doing the same recipe, baking the same thing, and the young granddaughter is learning the family recipes from her grandmother.”

According to statistics updated Tuesday by the Alberta government, 1,787 school-age Albertans are among the 14,006 cases of COVID-19 confirmed since March. Of those cases, 440 are in aged five to nine, while 1,347 are aged 10 to 19.

VanGorder’s advice for grandparents as the school year begins echoes what health care officials have been saying since the pandemic began: use good hand hygiene, don’t touch your face and maintain physical distance.

And, added Gisèle Pelchat, hope for better times ahead.

“I hope COVID disappears,” she said. “2020 has been a hard year for everybody.”

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