When the World Changed III. Communication between generations during the coronavirus epidemic

During the second half of March, members of a research team from the Institute of Ethnology and Social Anthropology SAS carried out a pilot survey about everyday life during the coronavirus epidemic in Slovakia. The research captured the unprecedented and radical change in people's life circumstances. As shown in the previous two reports[1], the coronavirus epidemic significantly impacted the everyday functioning of households and their routines. The third report will attend to intergenerational communication, which took on various forms in the past weeks.

During the period of social isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, people realized many phenomena and settings that do not function properly in society. Some problems that only peek through in normal times (but are nevertheless present) have presented themselves more significantly during the pandemic. The debate on the situation of seniors often got prominent coverage in media and public discourse, as they are one of the most at risk groups of residents[2], which inspired us to contemplate some ethical dilemmas. It reflects how the oldest generation is viewed by society, particularly by the middle generation.
Almost two thirds of respondents stated that the way they communicated with older family members or relatives changed after the outbreak of the epidemic. On the other hand, approximately a third of respondents declared that the form of communication with older family members remained unchanged; it was more often spontaneously described like this by men. Several social researches talk about a feminized pandemic, i.e. that the impacts are to a much greater extent borne and will be borne by women[3].

Also, responses in our survey hint that women – daughters, nieces and granddaughters – as they themselves stated, “ensured” most of the communication with the elderly (parents, grandparents or other relatives).

People aged 18 to 29 wrote less about changes in communication, as their parents probably don’t belong to the most vulnerable group. It was the same for respondents who live with seniors in multigenerational households. In comparison, people aged 30 to 49 have more often spontaneously described a change in the form of communication with older family members and relatives during the epidemic and it can be assumed that their parents and other elderly relatives belong to the most vulnerable group mentioned in the media.
Almost three fourths of respondents described that communication with older family members who live in separate households primarily focused on phone conversations during the coronavirus epidemic, and this was also most often spontaneously declared by people aged 40 to 49. Other means of communication were also spontaneously mentioned, however to a much lesser extent. This difference makes us repeatedly contemplate having a unified and simplified perception of seniors as a uniform group. We can see differences between the older elderly (over 80) and the younger elderly for instance in the use of modern technology for communication. On one hand, older seniors often belong to a group whose members are regularly excluded from digital services, which we label as digital inequality[4]. Very old people usually do not use the internet or do not own smartphones, which they could use with video call applications to connect with their children and relatives. In this case, it seems that the solution may be to use “older” technologies, e.g. telephones but also to write postcards or notes, which our respondents mentioned as a form of communication with their elders. This way, people might have managed to avoid the double exclusion of the eldest seniors – physical exclusion and exclusion from digital space. On the other hand, using modern technologies is a more common form of communication for younger seniors. Thirteen percent of respondents engaged in written communication (email, text messages, messenger) and another 13% mentioned video calls; this means of communication with elderly family members was more often mentioned by people aged 30 to 39.
In some cases, members of families who were unable to meet personally created their own communication groups on available online social networks. They used it to meet for regular video calls or send each other photographs and pictures that the grandchildren painted for grandparents as well as various other content. The period of physical separation in our respondents’ families sometimes sparked an interest to explore their family history and family stories that they shared among generations within their groups.
In some responses, people expressed being frustrated due to not being able to communicate with older relatives who live in institutional care. Even if they could have used the telephone, their older relatives were hard of hearing or had mobility issues and the staff at residential facilities were too busy to keep writing down phone messages or there were other measures in place which did not allow communication[5].

The ethical dilemma related to “carefully sterilized ageing”[6] grows into fatal dimensions. Undignified departures and lonely deaths became too present.

It seems that in this case too, the coronavirus pandemic only highlighted one of our society's weaknesses. Institutional care for the elderly as well as the disabled is often dependent on large capacity facilities[7], which provide their clients with only minimal space for their individual plans and needs. Such reflections could inspire the future planning of similar facilities, including architectural solutions and interior design.
In regards to the question of supporting elderly family members and relatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, most respondents (60%) stated that they provided help for their elderly family members. Again, this was mentioned mainly by people aged 40 to 49 and people on maternity or parental leave. A quarter of the respondents (25%) spontaneously stated the opposite – providing no help; these were mainly men and young people aged 18 to 29 most of whose parents do not belong to the at risk group age-wise.
Regarding particular forms of help, every second respondent from the set of those who declared helping their older family members or relatives during the epidemic mentioned doing their shopping (50%). These were mainly men and people from the 40 to 49 age group (again, we assume that their parents or other elderly relatives belong to the most at risk group).
The frequency of this form of help could be related to the fact that shopping (as well as venturing into public enclosed spaces) was termed as high risk mostly for the eldest generation by experts in the media. Later, due to the designated shopping times for individual age groups, the topic of right to freedom of movement in public spaces and the obligation to accommodate became significant communication “detonators”[8].

To a lesser extent, respondents mentioned helping by remote communication of some kind (17%) – i.e. communication with older family members and relatives itself was mentioned and perceived as a form of help.

In the responses it was often related to providing “mental or moral support” (15%): “We ask about their health, their daily programme and try to cheer them up.” “I try to send them funny photos of our kids to provide some sort of encouragement that once this is over, we will be together again.” This form of help was most often mentioned by the age group over 50 years of age. They telephoned their parents and elder relatives to encourage them or to just chat: “I call them more often and we talk (I let them talk it out to be more precise).” “I listen to how they live.” Adult children also mentioned that they are learning to be patient when communicating with elderly parents, they “indulge them more and are nicer”.
Fifteen percent of respondents stated communication was a means of educating or even persuading about the need to comply with protective measures: “We provide verified information and keep explaining things over and over.” “I direct their opinions.” “I help by raising awareness.” “We put information into perspective.”
In some cases, people described the need to control “misbehaving seniors”: they tried to “check on them”, “control them”, keep an eye on them”, “appealed to them”, “emphasized” ,“banned”, “locked” and the like.
The extraordinary situation and fear of the unknown which the virus represented at the time escalated the ageist displays connected to the infantilization of seniors, i.e. the middle generation treating seniors like children: “I make sure they have everything and I am strict and mean so that they do not go out.” Such perspective is related to paternalism[9], i.e. a “fatherly”, protective but also superior attitude. It is connected to an ethical dilemma about whether we have the right to protect those we love or those we think need it even at the cost of restricting their freedoms.

Paternalisation of seniors was present on both levels: family and state.

On the contrary, in the responses of people who variously expressed that they consider themselves seniors, we also found statements that accepted this state and expressed gratitude: “We are doing well, the young protect us and we, the elderly stay home.”
In connection to the results of the ISSP 2017 research for the Slovak Republic, in which a vast majority of respondents agreed with the statement that children should provide care for their ageing parents[10], we were also interested in the responses of people who stated that they do not help elderly parents or relatives. Fourteen percent of research participants said that they offered to help the elderly: “I was on standby”, but some stated that: “They don’t need/want it now. But I will help any way I can (shopping, medicine, chores, etc.).” This was more often present in the statements of men and people who were on maternity and parental leave at the moment.
A tenth of the respondents who did not state that they helped elderly family members during the surveyed period also mentioned that somebody else takes care of those family members: “My sister (single and childless) lives close to them so she does their shopping.” We assume that they realized that their parents or older relatives need help but it could be provided by somebody who was more available (“she has to take care”, “I forced my sister”). At the same time, several also stated that to return the favour they had been helping somebody else in their proximity, e.g. an elderly neighbour or friend’s parents. Simultaneously, they expected that somebody who was more conveniently located would help their parents who live far away; as one respondent said: “Karma will take care of it.”

In order to give the elderly the possibility to socially isolate, people also mentioned ensuring all necessary contact with the outside world as another form of help.

In some cases, respondents came up with elaborate ways of dropping off shopping, so that their grandmother or grandfather would not have to come into contact with the person or family member who took care of it and the like.
Another form of help that was mentioned was taking care of practical tasks like getting personal protective equipment – face masks and toiletries, providing meals, i.e. cooking or cleaning. In multigenerational families or households, these tasks were divided between generations – e.g. grandmother cooked while the mother took care of the children, schooled them, played with them and so on. From some of the responses it was clear that help is mutual (even during periods unrelated to the pandemic): seniors helped the younger generation like before. For example, grandparents helped their children care for the grandchildren (there were several possibilities: as parents had to keep going to work, some grandchildren moved to the grandparents’ and they were supposed to stay for the whole social isolation period). Others, mainly grandmothers, cooked, sewed face masks or read stories to children over the telephone or video calls.[11]
During social isolation, when grandparents were unable to babysit grandchildren, parents with younger children who participated in our research understood the importance of this form of help – more so when faced with difficult conditions of overlapping homeschooling and housework. That is why some respondents mentioned help in the form of “unburdening” their parents from watching the children: “If not giving them the little one to look after is a form of help, than yes.” “We help them by avoiding direct contact (under normal circumstances we would definitely have the grandparents help with the kids).” “We don’t want anything from them (like babysitting the kid).” In this regard, we would like to consider the complementarity of the responses given by the generation of grandparents from our research, who in addition to the restrictions (temporary loss of hobbies and social contacts) described the ability to spend more time resting, sleeping and having freer daily routines.
According to research[12], the form of help provided to elderly parents or other relatives is diverse under ordinary circumstances as well. Seniors engage different people in different activities, preferably based on their own wishes. They pick who they talk to, decide who they ask for help with the shopping or the cooking. They can ask someone else to help with internet banking or to remotely install an electronic device.

The possibility to decide when and whom seniors will meet and whom they ask for help can make them feel more competent as they are able to make decisions about their lives independently[13].

However, the pandemic weakened the older people’s ability to make decisions in regards to help related preferences as well as the possibility to provide help. Simultaneously, their confidence in being able to take care of themselves could have been undermined during the pandemic.[14]
Various types of respondents’ answers hint at a problem encountered by nuclear families (family composed of parents and their under-age children) as well as wider families in its dispersed form (when members of different generations live in different places within or out of the country). They are unable to manage the higher strain without help from contemporaries, neighbours and different types of institutions, even more so in situations when individual family members have increased needs. Our future task is to not only learn how to provide intergenerational help but also accept it and more importantly find the necessary balance between providing help and supporting it institutionally.

Ľubica Voľanská
Miroslava Hlinčíková
Soňa G. Lutherová
 ‍  ‍  ‍ 
 ‍  ‍  ‍ 
 ‍  ‍  ‍ 
 ‍  ‍  ‍ 
[1] Read more HERE.

[2] According to UN, mainly people aged 70 and over, see more HERE.

[3] Read more HERE.

[4] DiMaggio P., Hargittai E., Celeste C. and Shafer S. (2004). ‘Digital Inequality: From unequal access to differentiated use’. In: Neckermann KM (Ed.), Social Inequality. Russell Sage Foundation, New York, NY, pp. 335–400.

[5] See also HERE

[6] Haškovcová, H. (1989). Fenomén stáří. (Old Age Phenomenon) Praha: Pyramida.

[7] Káčerová, M., J. Ondačková, J. Mládek (2013). “Sociálne služby pre seniorov, typy, veľkosť a priestorová diferencovanosť – komparácia Českej republiky a Slovenskej republiky”. Regionálni studie 7 (1) (Social Services for Seniors, Types, Size and Space Differentiations – Comparing the Czech and Slovak Republic. Regional study 7 (1)): 51 - 66;
Gábor Szüdi, G., J. Kováčová, J., S. Konečný (2016). Transformation of Social Care Services for the Elderly in Slovakia. Journal of Social Service Research, 42 (2): 199 – 217.

[8] Read more HERE.

[9] See also HERE, and HERE.

[10] SSP Research Group 2019. ISSP 2017 Social Networks and Social Resources.

[11] Read more HERE

[12] E.g. Ongoing research as a part of APVV Starci: Intergenerational social networks in an aging city, continuation and innovation. 

[13] Seifert, A. (2020). “Day-to-Day Contact and Help Among Neighbors Measured in the Natural Environment”. Innovation in Aging 4(2): 1–13, doi:10.1093/geroni/igaa009

[14] In this regard, social historian Peter Laslett compiled a catalogue of anxieties that people have in regards to old age and ageing some time ago: some of the important points from his list relate to being dependent or to the fear of depending on others. (Laslett, P. (1996). A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age. London: Basingstoke, Hants.)

Photo 1: A. Niescioruk – unsplash.com
Photo 2: N. Karvounis A. Niescioruk – unsplash.com