To and Fro, Through the Years We Go – An Essay by Tatiana Popovitchenko

tatis

I used to love swings as a child. The feeling of reaching the top and then falling predictably back to earth was so comforting. Aging is like being on a one-way swing, only going up and never going back to what you know. It is no surprise that many of us live in denial of aging – as evidenced by superficial treatment of wrinkles and in the extreme purchases made around mid-life. If we weren’t so used to experiencing it, the constant feeling of hurtling into the future would make anyone want to pop open that photo album and cocoon into memories. Except, in each moment of recollection, we are missing out on the hurtling world around us; though I am not sure what is more crippling: FOMO or FOAS[1].

We often treat aging as something to be avoided at all costs. Google has jumped right on the bandwagon with its creation of Calico[2], a company employing some of the best scientists of the day and – full disclosure – some of my heroes in the business of: “… tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.” Indeed, Google, indeed it is. What is even more mysterious is why we should want to tackle something so fundamental to our development. Google is not alone in pursuing the ‘forever young’ mission, and one look into my medicine cabinet – full to the brim with a myriad of different skincare products – would convince you of that.

Despite these conflicting feelings and consumer decisions, it is very likely that one of your favorite people is someone who is aged in the best way. Cookies at grandmother’s house, anyone? Many individuals have fond memories of their grandmothers as the people who would unconditionally adore and nurture them, and this holds true cross-culturally from my cursory observations. More than simply showing us unconditional fondness, our grandmothers can be the pillars of our family units, however spread out they may become. Perhaps most relevant to the consideration of our attitude towards aging is this: would you ever consider your grandmother ugly? How interesting that we treat age so abstractly: avoiding it with all the tools we have and still revering those who have made it there.

The most interesting aspect of grandmothers, other than the fact that they would always be ready to stand behind and push us on that swing, is why they exist. Now, I tread into shark-infested waters here, but it is an interesting biological and sociological question. From a biological standpoint, it is strange for a member of a species to live well past their reproductive years. Reproducing is so much a driver of survival that most females in the animal kingdom don’t stay alive much past the child-bearing years[3]. Which brings us back to the question of grandmothers.

In an exploration of this curiosity of mammals, researchers studied two different kinds of populations that have kept good ancestral records: Canadian (a fast-growing population) and Finnish (a slow-growing population). Mirkka Lahdenperä and colleagues have unearthed new evidence for the so-called, “grandmother hypothesis,” an explanation to the phenomenon of the long-lived members of our families. This theory was first proposed by G.C. Williams as an adaptive benefit to post-menopausal life and probably best understood in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper by Kristen Hawkes et al. In the Nature paper by Lahdenperä et al., the group confirmed that regardless of the population, the reproductive success of a woman and the survival of her children was positively associated with a long-living postmenopausal woman. They also found, in the Finnish population, that women with a living mother had more children surviving to adulthood and fewer children if the living mother was geographically distant.

What this study seems to tell us is that grandmothering is essential to the way our social groups have come to be. The next generation is able to enjoy their childhood precisely because our grandmothers are right there behind us ready to push. Even more so, when we as women choose to usher in the next generation, it is usually with the previous one by our side, if we are lucky enough to have it. Maybe life is more like a swing than my initial analogy would have us believe. A grandmother has the golden opportunity to both know what to do in a situation and to be able to advise us on it, a prize only won with age. They have swung into the comfortable rhythm of age; probably laughing at us as we desperately wait in line at Sephora while they hold the hands of our smooth-skinned young.

[1] The fear of missing out, the fear of age spots, respectively.

[2] A clever amalgamation of “California Life Company.”

[3] This is not to be read as a scholarly judgment on whether or not to have children, or what the meaning of life is. Just as we humans have the honor of being able to live without reproducing, we also have the cognitive abilities to make the right decision for us at any given moment in our lives.

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