A grandfather holds his grandson on his shoulders as he walks outside. They both are smiling.
While we may be missing these special moments of bonding, there are still ways we can connect, safely. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of the pandemic is how quickly it flipped the switch on people over 60.

Practically overnight, millions of healthy, hands-on grandparents found themselves named the most vulnerable segment of the population.

Families responded fast. And it’s been touching to watch how quickly rituals developed, including video calls, window visits and drive-by celebrations.

But as some states move through phased re-openings as others begin to shut down again, families are champing at the bit. Do we really have to wait for a vaccine before we can give Nana and Papa a hug again?

Maybe not.

“Humans are such social creatures, and we want to interact with people we love, especially family members,” said Liam Sullivan, DO, an adult infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health. “If anything has tested us to the max during this pandemic, it’s this painful separation. Most of us aren’t introverts. We crave contact.”

So Dr. Sullivan is reluctant to tell people they can’t see family.

“Kids love grandparents,” he said, offering some general guidelines. “Be smart. Keep hugs brief. Continue to practice distancing and stay away from crowded areas.”

He noted it’s also important to push past generalities. Some grandparents are hale and healthy, and often provide essential daycare for working families. Others are frail, maybe living in communal facilities, and are more at-risk.

“This really does have to be an extremely customized discussion,” said Rosemary Olivero, MD, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “One family may have been quite isolated, and in another family, someone may have been exposed to hundreds of people in a week. Some grandparents have medical conditions that put them at much higher risk of severe COVID.”

The risk for contracting COVID-19, as well as getting a more severe case of the illness, increases with age. Sadly, so does the death rate. And yes, even the most rugged 60-year-olds are more vulnerable.

“The older people get and the more medical complications they have, the more the risk increases,” Dr. Olivero said.

Older family members should ask their health care providers if they have any special risks.

“For example, while people undergoing treatment for cancers are likely quite vulnerable, cancer survivors who have finished treatment may not be considered immune-comprised,” Dr. Sullivan said.

And while Dr. Olivero acknowledged that periods of self-isolation before seeing older family members is a hard sell, it’s the best way to minimize risks.

“Practice as much self-isolating as you can before seeing them for a week or two weeks, monitoring everyone’s health,” she said. “If everyone seems well, and you’ve limited contact with outsiders prior to the visit, then you can feel like you approach the visit with more safety.”

She suggested thinking about risk on a spectrum, considering the number of people you and other family members have had contact with in the past two weeks. If the number is very low, you can relax a little.

But if someone in your family has had many potential exposures? Then you could make family get-togethers safer by staying outdoors, wearing masks while inside and staying on separate sides of the room, keeping safe distances and keeping food prep and bathroom areas separate whenever possible.

“Realize you are increasing the risk you pose to them,” Dr. Olivero said. “And as much as you want kids to spend time with family, the last thing you want to do is make grandparents sick.”