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Keep Big Mama away from her grandbabies and the coronavirus

Black grandparents need to do something they never have: distance themselves from their families

Grandparents have long been key resources and authority figures in black communities. According to an AARP study, they start their role at a younger age compared with the general population, they have more grandchildren and are more likely to be living with them.

In our families, the grandmother is special. She’s Momma Susie, Big Mama, Bright Ma, Mamoo, Googin, Gigi, Honey, Nana, Sweet Granny, Granny Kate, M’dear. Merely invoking her is a stand-in for resilience, problem-solving and a fierce, call-it-like-I see-it love.

It’s a role that stretches back to enslavement, when parents worked in the fields and elderly women cared for children. It reached all the way up to the White House, when then-first lady Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, helped nurture and guide her granddaughters, Sasha and Malia.

The grandmother has been there for every contour, commemoration and crisis of black life. But the coronavirus, which first hit the U.S. in late January and has rapidly spread across the country, threatens to stop her in her tracks.

The elderly face the greatest risk from the COVID-19 virus and that risk often comes from young carriers. This makes the black grandmother’s closeness with her family also her greatest potential source of disease.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Edna Kane Williams, senior vice president of multicultural leadership for the AARP. “If you are a 70- or 80-year-old who suddenly has to homeschool young children, what does that look like? How do you handle that?” And how do you stay safe?

Kane Williams spoke with The Undefeated about the role of black grandparents and her concern about the ways the coronavirus upends their history and threatens older black lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What has been the role of grandparents, particularly grandmothers, in black communities?

From our 2018 grandparents survey, we found that African American grandparents are significantly more likely to be a primary caregiver – 31% versus 5% – than the general population, so that’s really a very significant difference. Primary means that they’re really taking on a parental role as opposed to a grandparent who might visit every so often.

These are caregivers who really have a day-to-day role in not only disciplining and mentoring, but, importantly, providing financial support for these children. Given the kind of crisis we’re in – the current social distancing and parents and grandparents needing to care for children who are out of school – that kind of primary caregiver takes on a whole different notion. I can only imagine how challenging that can be for some households.

What are the benefits of grandmothers caring for children, and what were some of the health challenges, even before the coronavirus?

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Edna Kane Williams, senior vice president of multicultural leadership for the AARP.

Edna Kane Williams

Even before this whole notion of social distancing, we were focused on a phenomena known as social isolation, meaning as you grow older, your world shrinks. You interact with fewer people on a day-to-day basis and there are some studies that suggest that can actually have an impact on your physical well-being.

Our study found that African American grandparents actually have lower levels of social isolation and are slightly less lonely than the general population, which can be attributed to a higher level of engagement in their grandchildren’s lives. So rather than having a negative impact on health, this study really highlighted from a health standpoint that there may be some benefit in terms of limiting social isolation.

One of the significant negative features, though, is the financial strain. We found that it’s significantly more likely that black grandparents are providing primary financial support. It is often support that they cannot really afford to provide, but they are going to find a way. We talked about matriarchs and the whole history of grandparenting in the African American community – our grandparents always found a way to put food on the table, to keep the lights on, to keep the family together. But that does create a type of financial strain that can lead to stress and worry that can have some health outcomes as well.

What are you hearing from black grandparents? Are people following the advice about social distancing?

We don’t have any hard data. We don’t even have anecdotal data because it’s so new. We’re a week in, in most locations where people have been basically housebound. I’m just extrapolating based on my experience as a black woman, what I can only imagine families are dealing with.

At AARP, we’ll be doing all that we can as this situation evolves to try to tap into what are the needs and what are the resources, importantly.

What are you most worried about with COVID-19 when you’re thinking of African American grandparents?

We have learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts, older adults are particularly vulnerable to this virus, especially those living in long-term care settings, where patients are grouped in communal settings and the virus can easily spread.

We’re really focused on long-term care institutions and other group settings, making sure they understand preventive aspects and make accommodations in their operational procedures to minimize risk. We also know older people have underlying health conditions like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and they are twice as likely to develop serious outcomes as a result of the virus as younger, healthier people.

Then, when you look at the great health disparities that exist, not only in African American communities but other communities of color as well, that complicates it even more.

So we’re really looking at and are interested in federal investments in diagnostics, treatments, vaccine development, outreach and education, that we have to have timely and consistent public health efforts.

We’ve also had a major campaign for more than a year now focused on ensuring that drugs are more affordable. As we look at solutions to the current crisis, we urge the federal government that any vaccines that are discovered or medications are affordable for all Americans and not just some.

Do you fear that our communities will not heed the experts’ advice?

Certainly you are familiar with the skepticism that exists within African American populations, particularly around clinical trials and testing. And that goes back to the Tuskegee experiment, and people just having a level of suspicion and skepticism about new drugs and new treatment and not wanting to step up and be the first. Does that translate into not being willing to take new drugs, or to even suspect new remedies? Possibly. That has been our history.

From my social network that spans income levels from the very low to the very high, I see a mix of things. I see a lot of people taking this very seriously, but earlier on, anecdotally, in some of the African American press, there was, ‘Oh, it doesn’t seem like it’s affecting African Americans as much.’ Then Idris Elba gets diagnosed, so some of the mythology that existed even two weeks ago – again this is such a fast-moving thing – is gone.

I think people are now recognizing that this can impact everybody. But I do think there are just stubborn sections of the populace that’s like, ‘Yes, I’m in the house most of the week, but my grandbaby is having this party,’ or ‘I had a cousin who turned 50 and we just don’t want to miss this celebration,’ so how do you combat that and get through to people that social distancing means just that?

I think you’re always going to have a segment of the population that ignores advice. In the African American community, we may have our cultural norms that mean we respond somewhat differently, but I think it’s operative in all segments of American society right now. We’ll see as this plays out whether people start abiding to the letter of what the recommendations are.

What is the best advice for older black folks?

Certainly, we say follow public health guidelines. Follow what your local communities are doing. Many communities are requiring people to stay at home. People should be washing their hands with soap and water and hand sanitizer frequently. People should try not to touch their face and mouth and eyes. If you haven’t had a flu shot, get a flu shot. But especially social distancing. We echo that advice. We also say have a plan to care for loved ones in the event that someone gets sick. Check in on loved ones by phone, email, FaceTime, Skype. We’re fortunate that there are technologies now that staying at home doesn’t necessarily mean the solitary confinement that it meant five to 10 years ago. There are many, many people over 50 who are on social media and use it as a way to stay connected to family.

I belong to a megachurch and we haven’t had services in the past two weeks. But there are prayer lines, webinars, telephone trees and buddy systems, so people are being creative. Organizations can do that, but families and friend groups can do that as well. It doesn’t take a megachurch to check on your cul-de-sac or your street, or your grandma.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.