Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, is sought out by journalists, scientists and policymakers who consider him one of the world’s most insightful experts on COVID-19.
But for five Twin Cities kids, he’s just Grandpa.
Summers have been a time to make memories for Osterholm, 67, and his grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 10. This summer, though, he’s only seen them twice since March, and only then from a proper 6-foot distance.
“I miss them dearly,” he said. “Not being able to hug the kids is tough. I miss the physical and emotional contact.”
But Osterholm is adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that those 65 and older (who are at higher risk of having a severe case or dying if they contact COVID-19) should limit contact to people in their household. That means steering clear of children who might be asymptomatic, inadvertent carriers of the virus.
He also understands why some grandparents duck that directive.
“Everyone’s getting pandemic fatigue. They start rationalizing, they think, ‘I don’t know anyone who died or had a serious illness,’ ” he said. “I see how grandparents can slip.”
If an international authority on the pandemic is tempted to break the rules, it’s no wonder that the resolve of an everyday Nana and Papaw may be starting to fray.
After twice canceling trips to see their only grandchild, Susan and Sankar Narayan took off in mid-May for Denver. During the road trip, which Susan called an example of “grandparent insanity,” they were nervous about the prospect of exposure while stopping for food and fuel and staying in hotels.
Before the pandemic, the Minneapolis couple had seen 20-month-old Mattias every other month or so. But with their daughter and son-in-law both working at home, the Narayans calculated their risk as low — and worth it.
“We did hug him, he’s such a little cutie. He’s getting verbal and knows the names of some animals and gets so excited when he sees trucks,” Susan said. “He’s changing so fast. I don’t know when we’ll see him again and what he will be up to.”
Being present for even small milestones is a treasured piece of the grandparent experience.
Wanting to be there
“That’s what grandparents talk about, wanting to be there for all those moments that you can’t get back,” said Lori Bitter, author of “The Grandparent Economy: How Baby Boomers Are Bridging the Generation Gap.”
The pandemic, she said, “has turned every grandparent into a long-distance grandparent” and put more pressure on parents, who once relied on their parents to lend a hand.
“This has been a shock to the system. It takes a toll on the parents who count on that support, that extra driver or set of hands. The village that it takes to raise a child sort of disappeared,” she said.
That may be why more grandparents seem to be relaxing their standards.
“We are seeing more rogue grandparents,” said Bitter. “They can’t stand it; they are breaking out. They see pictures of other grandparents with their grandkids on social media and they think, ‘Why am I being overly cautious?’ ”
In the midst of the anxiety about the global pandemic and the painful reckoning over racial injustice, joy has been in short supply at a time when older adults have never needed it more.
“It’s astonishing that in a short period we began living lives of such restriction and uncertainty,” said Ricé Davis, 74, a Falcon Heights grandmother of seven.
Before the pandemic, much of Davis’ schedule was filled with her grandchildren’s concerts, recitals and sporting events. She’s long kept a folding chair, water bottle and blanket in her car, ready to sit on the sidelines at a soccer game or track meet.
“It’s good for the kids to have me there cheering them,” she said. “Of course their parents love and support them, but grandparents think everything they do is amazing.”
Davis had limited her contact to waving from afar when dropping off gifts and enjoyed a distanced driveway visit with the whole family on Mother’s Day. Recently, though, she began paying short visits to her youngest grandchildren, 3-year-old twin boys.
“I broke. I relaxed my standards with the little ones and I’m hoping that doesn’t come to ill,” she said. “I wear a mask and take them on walks so my daughter can have a minute to herself. Going around the block takes an hour. Everything is interesting, every stick and stone and flower,” she said.
A divorced retiree, Davis admits the pandemic-induced isolation has been wearing.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about a job. I’m not flush, but I have money. I’m lucky. But I wake up and I say, ‘Here I am.’ There’s a sadness. This is my life now.”
Still missing out
Stephanie and David Maggitt took their 8-year-old granddaughter to the Mall of America so often that they bought a ride pass. Now the Golden Valley couple are playing cards and board games and baking with Gabriella at home.
“I’m teaching her how to measure and we work on her fractions,” said Stephanie. “I let her decorate the cupcakes; you can imagine the mile-high icing.”
When the stay-at-home orders were issued, the Maggitts (aka Nene and Papi), kept their distance. But they decided to create a “bubble” by limiting other contact so they could see their daughter and granddaughter. Stephanie is retired; there’s no one else in David’s insurance office and their daughter, a single parent, sheltered in place, working at home and schooling Gabriella.
“We like to give her a break and we missed Gabby so much,” said Stephanie.
The Maggitts have kept in touch with their other two granddaughters, who live in North Carolina, through video calls. But she admits she longs to be close to them.
“We’re all missing out,” she said.
Like many grandparents, Osterholm is frustrated by not knowing when restrictions can be safely lifted so family life can regain some semblance of normalcy.
“This has made me realize how precious time with grandchildren really is,” he said.
For grandparents thinking ahead to reuniting at the holidays, however, Osterholm may be a bit of a buzzkill.
“Don’t believe anyone who tells you when this will end,” he said. “No one knows. We have to wait until we have a safe and effective vaccine. The virus is a forest fire and it will keep looking for all the wood it can burn.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.