IN what now seems like another age – 10 days ago – the telephone rang. It was a friend who had been planning to drop round later for coffee. She falls into the coronavirus “at risk” category, but was confident that, so long as we sat two metres apart, it would be perfectly safe to meet. The evening before, however, both her son and daughter had phoned, reinforcing the message that mingling of any sort was strictly forbidden.

She hadn’t even mentioned that she was intending to go forth and socialise, but they had guessed it was likely. Reluctantly she promised strictly to self-isolate, hence the call to cancel. In some ways I was relieved, because the responsibility had been gnawing at me. Bad enough to fall ill yourself, but a hundred times worse if you pass it on.

As last week unfolded, with more stringent government warnings and edicts issued every day – sometimes every few hours – I heard of more and more instances like this. Children of elderly parents, and some who haven’t yet reached retirement age, were imploring, begging, and in some cases emotionally blackmailing them to heed medical advice and stay behind doors.

My husband, who is 60-plus on the outside but at heart still at Newport when Dylan went electric, also came under fire. He’d made the mistake of mentioning to his daughter that he had taken a minibus to get groceries. Compared to the 89-year-old who leapt on a bus to the Buchanan Galleries and bought a piano ahead of the lockdown, he’d been ultra-cautious. Instead of catching the bus home, he had returned on foot over the hills, his backpack stuffed with goodies.

His daughter knew better than to tackle him directly, so texted me instead. “Tell her not to worry,” he replied. As reassurance goes, it lacked a certain rigour. How often have teenagers told their mum or dad “not to worry” when they were neglecting their homework, or spending the small hours who knows where, doing who knows what? Did that lower their blood pressure one iota?

Up and down the country, the tables have been turned. If this were the era of switchboards, operators could tap into millions of lines and hear the increasingly anxious voices of the middle-aged trying to get their stubborn and defensive old ones to see sense.

The problem is, the over-seventies are exceptionally proud of retaining their independence. They bridle at any hint of being past it or not capable of looking after themselves. In normal circumstances this is a healthy mindset, fending off the reality of advancing years and the worry of one day becoming a burden. How many magazine features have you read reporting that 70 is the new 50, and weightlifting and running are essential to stave off premature rigor mortis? Until the past fortnight, all those who remember rationing (not a category that includes my husband, I should quickly add) and were carrying on as if they were mere striplings were viewed as marvels and inspirations. Now, their gung-ho, can-do spirit has to be put on hold, forced into hibernation for however long this blight lasts. I don’t envy any son or daughter reminding their mother or father of their vulnerability, and urging them to take seriously the mortal threat that lies beyond the gate.

To see children laying down the law is yet another example of a world gone bananas. You could call it pay-back. Did any of us manage to get through adolescence without coming under constant sniper attack? Most parents griped and girned until their hair turned grey. In our household you could set the clock by the raised voices chivvying us to get out to school, or turn down the radio, or help with the washing up. The small print of parent-child contracts includes the adult’s right to scold, pontificate and nag as often as required. Junior’s side of the bargain makes no provision for reasoned argument, protest or rebellion. It states simply that they must unquestioningly obey, preferably for all time.

The irony of policing one’s parents behaviour doesn’t make this any easier. But perhaps there’s a frisson of satisfaction in being able to exact revenge on those who spent the best years of their lives hectoring and carping. Could it feel like a righting of old wrongs to chastise dad for his recklessness, or ask a 90-year-old to grow up when she suggests an SAS-style dawn-raid on the supermarket?

It is especially satisfying, surely, that the role reversal necessary to reinforce these new rules is done in the name of commonsense and caring. When the point of the exercise is to protect the lives of those you love, in terms of moral high ground it’s up there with Macchu Pichu. What possible riposte can anyone give when urged to take precautions not just to safeguard yourself, but those closest to you?

Yet as most handbooks to raising a family suggest, nagging is futile. It sets up a vicious circle of resentment and rebellion, and makes the one being chastised feel sore. When people are lectured, they switch off, mentally reaching for the headphones until the tone of voice improves. Whether you’re 13 or 93, that never changes. So, as a mass technological revolution is rolled-out, with elderly luddites being all but forcibly initiated into the art of video calling, more trouble lies ahead.

In an old-fashioned phone conversation, finger-wagging offspring can’t see their loved ones rolling their eyes, putting an invisible gun to their temples, or mouthing “Give me a break!”. But as soon as they can observe the impact their words are having it’ll be like travelling back in time. They’ll see these beloved faces taking on an unfamiliar juvenile expression: sullen irritation, avoidance of eye contact, nail-biting, fidgeting, a huffily shrugged shoulder.

The longer these virus vigilantes bang on, the less response they’ll get. The age-old aria between adult and adolescent is an unequal contest: a torrent of words in one corner, mutinous monosyllables in the other. I don’t doubt for a moment that most older folk will pay heed to their family’s concerns. Like any self-respecting teenager, however, they’ll probably pretend not to have heard a word.