Essays

Essays July 2010

The Great Grandparenthood Boom, Predictive Irrationality and the Future of Caregiving

Neil Seeman

Will you be a great grandparent? How would you change your behavior if, at age 30, you knew you would live to age 105?

In many cultures grandparents take on a primary role in caring for children, providing stability, predictability, and wisdom. They are surrogate parents, keepers of family ties, transmitters of culture. Many grandparents are responsible for raising at least one grandchild. And some are also great grandparents. That is why the discovery of new gene variants that can tell us how long we’ll live is so important. It is important for the future of our great grandchildren.

Throughout human history, grandparents have raised the young while parents supplied the basic needs for survival. The family worked as a team. In modern times, where both parents frequently work outside the home, grandparents and great grandparents are assuming increasingly important roles in the rearing of future generations.

Grandfamily” is a recently coined term that refers to a family where grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives (or close family friends) are raising a child. There are currently 6.7 million children in the United States who are living in a grandfamily.

Planning for Great Grandparenthood

We always knew that longevity depended on family history, but the facts are more precise now, thanks to the groundbreaking study in Science by Paola Sebastiani and colleagues, which analyzed the DNA of over 1,000 centenarians and found genetic markers that can be used to predict “exceptional longevity” with 77% accuracy. Now we can find out, should we wish to know, which side of the family we take after, the short-lived Xs or the long-lived Ys. If I knew I’d be dead at 75 would I live my life differently than if I knew I’d live to 105? Would I be less “present-focused,” and thereby make longer range economic and human health choices? If I’m going to live on to 105, perhaps I need to focus on where and near whom I want to be in my very old age.

I heard recently of a trip to the top of Masada by the residents of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, New York – the so-called “Chutzpah Mission”. They took their walkers and motorized vehicles. Some managed it with canes and heart medicine safely tucked away in blister packs in their back packs. If you knew that your genetic lifeline would fizzle early, would you live with more chutzpah?

Kenneth Wachter, chair of the department of demography at the University of California, Berkeley, has estimated that by 2030, more than 70 percent of American 8-year-olds will likely have a living great-grandparent. Kevin Kinsella, the head of the Aging Studies branch of the United States Census Bureau, calls it the ‘great-grandparent boom’. That’s because, even though the young are having their babies later than before, we are all living longer.

In 2000, there were more than 50,000 centenarians in the US, a 35 percent increase from 1990, and the census bureau estimates the total will surpass 580,000 by 2040. Whatever the actual number of great-grandparents, demographers agree that North American family trees today often resemble a beanpole: thin (because there are fewer children in each generation) and long (because there are more living generations).

Predictively More Rational

Will knowing you’ll live long make you organize your life in such a way that you’ll stay close to your descendants and be there for the young ones when they need you? Or will it work the other way? Will your grandchildren move purposely as far away as possible to avoid the responsibility of looking after you in your old age? In his treatise on behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely demonstrates that whatever humans expect, that’s what they experience. For example, if we tell people in advance that their drink contains vinegar, they’ll wince when they taste it. If we don’t tell them, they will savor each sip. So if public health markets the proposition that caregiving is a fulfilling way to spend one’s time, that it’s fun and rewarding, both we and our grandkids can look forward to the joys of helping each other out as we age. May you live to 120, and care for your kin.

About the Author

Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell

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