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.