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Can I Keep My Young Son and Aging Parents Safe During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

It feels like ages ago that my husband and I canceled our travel plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My 6-year-old’s school hadn’t yet closed, and it was before the airlines dropped their hefty flight change fees. It felt early in the game to take this step, but I’d been watching the news. Information about the novel coronavirus disease was spreading seemingly even faster than the virus itself was spreading throughout the country. I was concerned about my 6-year-old’s health, but ultimately, what forced my decision to stay home was fear for my aging parents.

What would happen if I flew on a germy plane and my health faltered, too? Who would be there for my mom and dad?

I’m one of those rare individuals who’s privileged enough to be a part of two generations. As the mother of a young son, I usually downplay the fact that I’m a member of Gen X. I’m 10-15 years older than most of the mothers in my son’s first-grade class, and I’ve discovered they don’t understand why I still have my Lost Boys movie poster hanging at my parents’ house. When Ross and Rachel finally discovered they were each other’s lobster, I’d already gotten married. I gave birth to our son when I was 40.

Taking my time to grow up didn’t stop my parents from growing older. Today, I’m sandwiched between my son and my parents and looking out for them both. This makes me a member of the emerging Sandwich Generation, with its members between the ages of 40 and 59. (Ironically, I avoid eating sandwiches/carbs in an attempt to stay healthy…for my young son and my older mom and dad. Sigh.)

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Image: Tonilyn Hornung’s parents and son. Courtesy of Tonilyn Hornung.

When my husband and I rescheduled the trip that would have us traveling during the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, I knew it was going to come at an emotional cost to my son’s heart. He’d been looking forward to our spring break vacation since Christmas vacation. Travel sanctions were made soon after, and our decision ended up being the right one. But it was then I saw my fear laid out at its barest: Making the choice to take care of one family member might adversely affect another. It’s a balancing act that I’m only just beginning to comprehend.

For the most part, my mom and dad are able to function without much of my help. I’m not yet running a constant carpool between my son’s after-school activities and bringing grocery staples to my parents or managing doctor visits. I’m keenly aware that this responsibility will soon fall to me. Just in the past year, I’ve graduated from being the child they protected during a family crisis to being the adult they call in an emergency — or when they need dinner delivered in a pinch. The transition has begun, and since they’ve helped me my whole life, I’m happy to return the favor.

My mom and dad are in the 65-and-older age range and their health is not at its peak. It’s significantly harder for them to fight off an aggressive virus like COVID-19. Another plot twist: My father is immunocompromised. His system doesn’t have the same capability it once had to combat this illness, and there’s a higher risk of complications should he get it. Not only that, but he needs a surgery in the coming weeks. It can’t be delayed. There may come a time, sooner than later, when my father needs all my help. This is why COVID-19 terrifies me — for myself and for them. And Amazon is all out of Hazmat suits.

More than wondering why people are overbuying toilet paper, fear is what keeps me up at night. I’m losing sleep over that nerve-wracking possibility that making a choice to help one family member will hurt another — or worse yet make them ill. Right now, even just going out to buy household staples could mean exposing my older parents to the virus. With my son out of school for the time being, I wonder how I’ll be able to balance the logistics of taking care of my little guy and being on-call for my parents. I find my brain lost in a sea of what-ifs. What if my son gets sick? What if my parents get sick? What if I get sick? How will I help my son? How will I help my parents? How will I watch out for everyone?

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Tonilyn Hornung and her son. Courtesy of Tonilyn Hornung.

It’s true, I’m definitely hearing, “Mom, I can do it myself,” a lot more from my son these days, but he can’t do it all himself — and I wouldn’t want him to. I need to be there for him during this crisis, with all the logistical and emotional support I can give. We’re a good team.

Thankfully, my husband helps split up some of the care taking, but since my parents are my parents, the bulk of that responsibility falls to me. I’ve even started pre-planning different scenarios if school starts back up again. Based on medical reports I’m hearing, I’m terrified to send my child back into an environment when he could carry this virus unknowingly back to his grandparents.

Navigating the people I love most through a pandemic of historical proportions was never on my agenda. In these strange times, I’m making this up as I go and trying my best to make educated decisions along the way. With my parents’ health unsteady, my husband, son, and I are making choices to stay out of COVID-19’s way. This means isolating as much as we can, and this is certainly one important step we can take to keep us safe. Right now, it’s a balancing act because my goal is to be there for my son, and for my parents, for always.

Are you, too, taking care of kids stuck at home due to school closures? Here are some ways to keep them busy.

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