UC Davis experts provide tips and cautions for visiting older family members


One of the more difficult dilemmas as California and local communities ease COVID-19 restrictions is whether to visit older family members, especially those who have been alone for three months.

Visiting older family members should be a careful balancing act.
Visiting older family members should be a careful balancing act.

On one hand, older parents or grandparents can feel isolated and alone missing their children and grandchildren. But the older the family members are, the more vulnerable they are to COVID-19. Contact with family could endanger their lives.

“I don’t think there are perfect answers,” said Calvin Hirsch, a UC Davis Health professor of clinical medicine who specialize in geriatrics. “There is a hard balance between providing for the mental health of our parents and caring for their physical health.”

Zoom meetings, phone calls, messages and letters are nice, he said, but there is no substitute for personal contact, especially for older family.

“They have been sheltering at home for nearly three months. It’s like they’re in a prison cell that is their home,” Hirsch said. “That can have a devastating effect emotionally. They miss their children and grandchildren. They have a limited time left and that can weigh heavily on them when they’re missing the people who count the most in life.”

Hirsch and Natascha Tuznik, UC Davis Health assistant clinical professor of infectious diseases, have advice about whether to visit older family and how to make it as safe as possible.

Should you visit?

Clearly, do not go if you have the sniffles or feel sick in any way. No matter how careful you are, there will be some risk.

“You really have to ask yourself if you’ve been careful and have been following safety guidelines,” Hirsch said. “Many people believe they’re practicing good social distancing but slip now and then. Remember, these are your parents or grandparents you could be putting at risk.”

If you’re bringing children, also think through whether they are capable of keeping good physical distancing and more.

“Kids over age 5 are a little easier to reason with,” Tuznik said. “Try telling your kids they are masking like superheroes and are protecting grandma and grandpa. If they do run up and hug grandma, don’t panic, but keep it short then talk to them again.”

Should you get a COVID-19 test before you go?

Both said it can’t hurt, but don’t get a false sense of security.

“If that’s readily available and you’re going to be scrupulous after the test, that’s a reasonable idea,” Hirsch said. “But don’t get complacent. You still have the time and travel until you get there.”

Getting there.

Drive if at all possible. If you have to fly, you might consider not visiting, they said. Airports and planes present a greatly heightened risk.

“When you drive, preparation is paramount,” Tuznik said. “Plan ahead, map your trip, try to make as few stops as possible.”

At gas stations, either wear disposable gloves or use a paper towel on the pump handles. Use contactless payment methods, if you can.

“If the drive is long enough that you have to stop to eat, it’s safest to bring your own food,”
 Tuznik said. “Look up nice spots for picnics, but if you’re bringing your kids, don’t stop at places where they’ll want to play on swings and slides.”

Can you hug?

“That’s a hard one,” Hirsch said. “Some of them have not had a hug in months. They miss closeness. The safest thing is to say, ‘We’re not out of the woods yet and we want to keep you around longer.’”

But they said use your judgment. If everyone wears masks and you don’t hug face to face – look in opposite directions – a short hug might be worth the risk.

What are general guidelines for the visit?

“Globally speaking, time and distance matter,” Tuznik said. “The more time you’re together, the higher your risk. The shorter the visit, the better, but you have to weigh that against how much they want to see you.”

If possible, meet someplace outdoors, even if it’s their yard, if they have one. If they live in a city without a yard, try to walk somewhere, if possible.

“Some elderly people in cities have literally been shut-ins, afraid to go to the corner store because someone without a mask might get too close,” Hirsch said. “Even if you can just go for a walk, that will be good for them.”

“Dedicate one bathroom for the guests, if you can,” Tuznik said. “You use that while you’re there and clean it before you leave.”

If you’ve traveled a long way and have to stay overnight, try to stay in a hotel.

“That might be a hard conversation with your parents, who want to keep you there, but it’s the safest for them,” Tuznik said. “There is also some risk to you, so, again, think through how important the visit is. If you do stay in a hotel, don’t visit them in the morning. Call to say goodbye.”

Can we cook a meal for them, or get them takeout?

“Homemade is probably better, especially because you might not know enough about the restaurants in their area,” Tuznik said. “Although there is no evidence of the virus being transmitted through food, I would encourage making something you can throw in the oven. There is not a lot of data on that, but theoretically high heat should be another layer of safety.”

“Cooking a meal is a wonderful thing,” Hirsch said. “A meal is incredibly important. But if you’re going to dine with them, be sure to sit at least six feet apart. Think about bringing your own utensils and wash them when you get home. You might decide it’s best to cook, then go home, as odd as that will feel.”

Here is more travel advice on hotels and airplanes and on road trips and rest stops.