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Let's Reminisce: The value of extended family
By Jerry Lincecum
Mar 20, 2018
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I grew up in an extended family household which included my maternal grandfather and a bachelor uncle.  We also lived nearby my paternal grandparents and visited them often.  Most of the children I grew up with also knew at least one or two of their grandparents and were in contact with them on a regular basis.  There were very few nursing homes at that time because extended family could be counted on to take care of grandparents when they needed assistance.  That is no longer the case, in part because the younger generation is less able and willing to take care of elderly relatives.  Even visiting them on a regular basis is difficult in some cases.

 

To help meet the needs of older people for personal interaction, the Japanese have developed robots who can become personal assistants and build relationships with elderly people.  I watched a movie recently entitled Robot and Frank, which showed how this could occur.  Frank was a widower with two children, neither of whom could visit him regularly.  As he began to experience symptoms of dementia, his son brought him a robot that would help with household chores and also was programmed with enough information about his life to carry on meaningful conversations.  As Frank’s dementia progressed, he moved into an assisted living facility where every resident had a personal robot like his.

 

I’m not advocating this approach; on the contrary, it made me realize how much I gained from having frequent and regular contact with my own extended family.  For example, growing up with my grandfather and uncle in the household was like having three fathers who were complementary in that I learned from each on them in turn without feeling conflict among them.  In my discussions with senior writers, many of them have expressed benefits they received from having regular interactions with grandparents.  In most cases they agree with me that as children we just didn’t realize what a significant value we had.  Seeing how much rarer it is today for children to spend much time with their grandparents is what makes us realize how privileged we were.

 

Another specific example can be found in my conversations with elderwriters who say their children and grandchildren are pressing them to write down their memoirs.  Many people of my generation spent enough time with their grandparents to hear them tell about their life stories orally.  We are less likely to feel uninformed about the lives of our grandparents than today’s younger generation.  I know a lot more about my grandparents’ life stories that my grandchildren know about mine.

 

By the way, I left out one major part of the story in Robot and Frank.  Frank was originally very resistant to accepting the robot into his life.  He gave in when he discovered how useful the robot could be in helping clean his house, cook his meals, and carry on conversations.  Then Frank got a bright idea: he had been a successful “cat burglar,” one who did significant research before attempting a major heist and also had all the tools and skills necessary to break into a safe and steal jewels or large sums of cash.  He began training his robot to become his accomplice and partner in crime.

 

With the aid of his robot Frank was successful enough to pull off a couple of burglaries and regain his zest for living dangerously.  However, the onset of serious dementia meant that his children had to intervene.  He found comfort in having his robot with him in the assisted living center, especially since other residents had their own.  The movie was entertaining, but the most important lesson I gained from it was a greater appreciation for my upbringing during a time when extended family members were valued by my parents and available to enrich the lives of me and my siblings.

 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.