It’s not only parents who are trying to navigate back to school for their children.
Some grandparents are trying to figure out where they fit into the maze of modified classrooms, remote learning and home-schooling while many of their adult children work from home.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joanne Bakker, 59, provided before- and after-school care for two of her grandchildren in Cooks Creek, Man., about 37 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
For two weeks each month, she’d also sleep over at her daughter Apryl Schumann’s house while she worked overnight shifts as a personal support worker for adults with disabilities.
Not seeing her adult children and five grandchildren during the lockdown left Bakker feeling lost and isolated, elevating her anxiety and depression.
“It was so very hard — really tough because we are all so close, real tight. We would spend so much time together,” Bakker said.
Dr. David Conn, a geriatric psychiatrist at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto and co-chair of the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health, said the return to school and rising COVID-19 numbers are worrying many older adults.
“If someone is prone to anxiety to begin with, this really heightens it and can push someone perhaps into an anxiety disorder,” Conn said. “We have certainly seem some depression with isolation, and I am a bit worried as winter comes we may see higher rates of depression.”
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Before her grandchildren returned to school, Bakker decided to continue providing care while taking precautions to make sure she and her husband, Ron, are safe.
“There is always the chance for her to get infected because she is in contact with my kids, and my kids are in contact with multiple children throughout the day, which connects you to multiple families,” said Schumann, Bakker’s daughter. “And really it is just a chain.”
Schumann said it’s all about following safety protocols of frequent hand washing, sanitizing and respecting each other’s space.
Bakker said it’s a balancing act.
“I am nervous for my grandkids. I am nervous for their parents. You don’t want to not see your kids and the grandkids. But I don’t want to get it, either,” she said. “And there is my husband who had a heart attack in 2003. He has to be really careful, too, because if he gets COVID, I worry if he would be able to survive it. I don’t want to give it to my husband.”
‘It really creates a dilemma’
She isn’t alone in her dilemma. It’s a common thread for grandparents during the pandemic, according to Bill VanGorder, chief policy officer at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.
He’s been hearing from grandparents across the country who are telling him back to school means back to the stress and anxiety that was so evident during the lockdown.
“If they aren’t able to see their grandkids or have to make decisions based on how they will see their grandkids because of underlying health issues, it’s taking an emotional toll. It really creates a dilemma,” said VanGorder.
VanGorder said CARP is hearing about three different scenarios across the country involving grandparents. The list includes those grandparents, like Bakker, who are continuing to care for grandkids before and after school, those who wish they could but can’t because of health issues and those who are living in multi-generational families.
Tara Martin’s mother-in law, 87, lives with her, her husband and their 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, in Brandon, Man.
When cases started to spike there in August, Martin contacted her mother-in-law’s doctor and was told her mother-in-law would likely not recover if she contracted the virus. Martin wrote a letter to the school requesting remote learning for Sophie, who is in Grade 5. It was approved, but the family is still waiting for remote learning to start.
Martin feels a sense of relief that she made the right decision to protect her mother-in law. The class her daughter was supposed to be in has recorded its first case of COVID-19.
At first, Martin said Sophie was upset to find out she wouldn’t be going back to school with her friends. But her daughter has come to terms with it.
“She loves her grandmother and can’t imagine the thought of grandma getting sick,” Martin said.
Roxanne Shuttleworth is relieved for a different reason. The Dauphin, Man., grandmother has two grandsons who will be home-schooled this year. She said while she isn’t worried about her own health, she’s glad her grandchildren won’t run the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom.
“I was very happy with the decision of my son and daughter-in-law, who is also a teacher,” Shuttleworth said. “I admit I am biased, but I said when we were chatting I would feel much better if they were home-schooled at grandma’s instead of with the rest of the school population.”
Bakker wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My kids and grandkids are my life. I would do anything for them. They come first, after my husband. They mean the world to us. And I know, just like we are there for them now, one day they will be there for us.”