A world without grandmothers

Grandmothers, according to anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, are what make us human.

This 2012 article in The Atlantic outlines her hypothesis:

“Grandmothers came about in order to ensure that small children weren’t left behind. With the kids provided for, natural selection was free to favor those with larger brains, thus paving the way for those apes to evolve into humans. And grandmothers’ style of upbringing, with its emphasis on social dependence, gave rise to ‘a whole array of social capacities that are then the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.'”

Hawkes’ hypothesis is controversial among anthropologists but commonsensical to anyone with a loving grandmother.

My sons were particularly blessed in the grandmother department. Nana (my mother) and Nonna (their dad’s mother) were integral parts of their lives.

Nana was pure fun. She read the boys books, baked cookies, taught them cribbage, challenged them at golf, and was the first and last person on the dance floor at my younger son’s wedding five years ago.

Nonna was a vital member of the parenting team that raised the boys after their dad I divorced when they were 6 and 3. After I went back to work when my older son was six months old, she fed him my pumped breast milk, held his hands as he took his first tentative steps, played “This Little Piggie” in Italian on his—and later on his younger brother’s—toes.

Both of them were always there when we needed them—and we needed them often.

Both of them died this week.*


Our grandmothers face extreme risk right now. Our grandfathers, too. Not only because “they are the target” of COVID-19 (quoting Isobel Mackenzie, BC’s seniors’ advocate), but because our efforts to protect them from the virus will isolate them. Further.

In an article recently published in The Lancet titled “COVID-19 and the Consequences of Isolating the Elderly,” the authors point out that social isolation was already a “serious public health concern” for the elderly even before the current pandemic.

Charles Eisenstein is a teacher, speaker, and writer who envisions “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” I have written about his work before. In his new essay on COVID-19, Eisenstein writes:

The measures being instituted to control Covid-19 … may end up causing more suffering and death than they prevent. Minimizing deaths means minimizing the deaths that we know how to predict and measure. It is impossible to measure the added deaths that might come from isolation-induced depression … Loneliness and lack of social contact has been shown to increase inflammation, depression, and dementia.

Loneliness can increase a person’s risk of dying by 45%, according to Lissa Rankin, M.D. She believes that loneliness is the greatest health risk of all.


Imagine a world without grandmothers. Without grandfathers.

Imagine—please—ways that we can minimize old people’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 without putting them at risk of dying from loneliness.


The authors of the Lancet article call for “urgent action … to mitigate the mental and physical health consequences” of enforced self-isolation for our elders. They suggest:

  • harnessing online technologies to provide social support networks and a sense of belonging
  • community outreach projects
  • frequent telephone contact with family and friends, voluntary organizations, and health care professionals

Not everyone will be able to do the first two items on the list, but we can all pick up the phone and say “hello in there.”


* Neither died from COVID-19.

10 Responses to “A world without grandmothers”

  1. Avatar Judy Jaarsma

    ♥ First of all, my condolences on the lost of both Nana and Nonna! ♥

    ~ I am one grandmother who is used to being social, for sure! Now, while staying at home I am ever so grateful for my telephone and the technology I have to be able to ‘see’ my children via video calls. I am thankful too, to have at hand the “texting”, “messaging'” and emails that enable me to keep in touch with my family and friends.

    Reply
    • commatologist commatologist

      Thank you, Judy. I loved the way you and Gina baked together at a distance. The technology I love to rail against can be pretty wonderful sometimes.

      Reply
  2. Avatar Sheila Peters

    Lovely, Leslie. And the pictures are grand.

    We are so lucky to have one grandma and great grandma left for our boys and grandson – and then I have to remember we are grandparents too! My son figured out how our grandson can play Go Fish and Memory with us online – it’s great.

    Reply
  3. Avatar Carol Matthews

    Thanks very much for this good post. My own grandmother was a great support to me, making it clear that she thought I was very special and that I could do whatever I set out to do. My mother was a wonderful grandmother to my daughter, sewing very special dresses and costumes for her and teaching her crafts. Now I have a close relationship with my granddaughter and I treasure the time with her. She agrees that we are very close friends and good company. I greatly miss getting to spend time with her in person but, yes, we are lucky to have the telephone and the internet and so we can maintain the connection.
    And we are learning new things every day about ourselves, our families, our friends and neighbours and the world. We will be changed when the pandemic has ended. For the better, I hope.

    Reply
    • commatologist commatologist

      I trust it will be for the better, Carol. Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience.

      Reply
  4. Avatar Laurie Kocher

    Lovely, and timely, and important.

    Joan Baez just did a lovely rendition of John Pine’s song, in tribute to his battling Covid-19.

    Reply
  5. Avatar Mary Caroline Rowan

    Thank-you so much for this beautiful piece. I am wanting to write something about my decision to keep my Mom home. I have found it deeply troubling to thinnk about the many elderly people who right now are stuck in hospitals, and long term care facilities, without caring companionship. I just love the John Prine song at the end. Thanks Leslie. Sending love.

    Reply
    • commatologist commatologist

      I applaud you for keeping your mom home, Carol. Thank you for being you.

      Reply

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