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Great-grandparents in Brazil?

It is a common misconception that Brazil is a young country with a long way to go before it has to tackle the challenges of population ageing. The data tell a different story. According to Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), by 2040 Brazil’s older population may be one of the largest in the world (in absolute size), with more than 50 million people aged 60 years and over. The country’s mortality rates have been declining as health service provision improves; and public policies are increasingly addressing ageing issues. Levels of childbearing have declined enormously over the last 60 years and the total fertility rate is now below replacement level (the TFR of 1.7 is about the same as that in the UK). Although Brazilian women are now delaying their first pregnancy, pushing up the average age at which they have children, there are still a large number of women who become mothers when they are still in their teens. Family structures are becoming more vertical, which is to say that although each generation in a family has fewer members, there are now more generations.

So yes, there are great-grandparents in Brazil, and it seems very likely that this will be an increasingly common experience in the future. At the moment, the relatively high incidence of teenage pregnancy in Brazil means that great-grandparenthood is not always linked to extreme old age, and it is possible to come across great-grandparents in their fifties.

In my own research on great-grandparents, carried out in Recife (Brazil), there was no-one that young.  The group though was still quite heterogeneous in age, the youngest being 74 and the oldest 97. What interested me was the role and status of great-grandparents in Brazilian society. Could they be said to have a role? What did they themselves think of their position in the family, and no less important, what did other family members think?

The Brazilian literature on the subject is limited, but what there is suggests that great-grandparents do seem to have a unique role and status in the family, and it is one we should understand more from an emotional and symbolic perspective than a functional and practical one. It is interesting to note that great-grandparents in my research speak with pride and satisfaction about reaching what they clearly regard as a milestone of longevity in the family:

“Actually, I feel very satisfied, I have the opportunity to see a child, that is my great-grandchild, be born, grow up, this is very good. (...) I didn't think I would experience those moments.”

As this particular great-grandfather (95 years old) explained, it can be quite unexpected. A milestone, yes, but not one that he expected to reach.  Not only a milestone, moreover, but a blessing or a gift, something to be grateful for.

“I feel that I received a gift from God ... thus a blessing from God. I realized that I was a good son, a good father, a good grandfather and now I am a good great-grandfather”. (Great-grandfather 84 years old).

And a gift may even be regarded as something that was deserved. 

"God perceived me as deserving of this joy". (Great-grandmother 74 years old)

What is gained is time to spend with grandchildren, but it is time unencumbered by practical responsibilities. "Currently I have time ... a lot of time to talk" (Great-grandmother 97 years old). This grant of time is especially appreciated because of its contrast with the way that time was all too often used up with children and grandchildren. It is an opportunity to do what you couldn’t do when fulfilling the role of parent or grandparent. 

“It seems like a chance for you to do with your great-grandchildren what you didn't have time to do with your children or maybe even with your grandchildren”. (84 year old grandfather)

 “Even when I was a grandmother, the important thing was that things at home were ready ... lunch, clean clothes, swept house, so much stuff! Today, that rush is over, and I have time for my great-grandchildren... I play with them, I talk to them, I watch television with them, I like to hear them sing and dance too ... all of this without haste, because now I have time to do that. I feel like now I am calmer and happier!” (74 year old great-grandmother)

So perhaps the main benefit really is the time gained? Time for unalloyed enjoyment of a new relationship, time to go back to things that hadn’t been enjoyed for many years.

I talk, play, make toys ... I have a lot of handicraft skills. Now I can do everything calmly ... I don't try to be their father, I am their great-grandfather”. (84 year old grandfather)

What my respondents told me chimed in, at least in some ways, with the views of hypothesis by Mahne, Klaus and Engstler, namely that the relationship between great-grandfather and great-grandchild resembles the ‘old’ grandparent-grandchild relationship, involving a more emotional and playful role on the part of great-grandparents. The corollary, of course, is that it is a relatively ‘new’ phenomenon for grandparents to take on a quasi- parental responsibility.

Another way of conceiving the role of great-grandparents was to regard the  transmission of life lessons as a kind of ‘transcendence’ - to see something of oneself passed on so as to continue in a great-grandchild: “Who knows? Maybe I can leave some memories with these boys!” (Great-grandfather 95 years old)

It goes without saying that age and health will have a big influence on the kinds of tasks that great-grandparents feel able to undertake with their great-grandchildren and families. With this in mind, we can ask if great-grandparenthood is actually lived out as a role at all, or if it is rather a status, as “a living ancestor” within the family. Where the emphasis falls will depend on the particularities of activities in they engage.

So, yes, there are great-grandparents in Brazil, but there is still much to be explored on their potential role and/or status within the family. Grandparents who become great-grandparents gain another opportunity to see another generation grow. They provide us, as  researchers and family professionals, with an opportunity to understand what is still an unusual position within the family and learn from those who occupy it. I would like to see more systematic research on this generation that is waiting to pass on its knowledge of life.

When I say that I am a great-grandmother, some people say that I am already very old... that old age has arrived. I answer: Yes, I know that old age has arrived, and I will enjoy it! This is now the new phase of my life! I just enjoyed my childhood, then so many things came... it seems that I did not fully experience any of the other phases of life afterwards... but this one now, I will live out!” (Great-grandmother 74 years old)

About the Authors:

Emily Schuler is a Visiting Student at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. Emily is currently a Doctoral Student in Clinical Psychology at the Catholic University of Pernambuco with a Capes Scholarship (Coordination of Improvement in Higher Education of the Brazilian Education Ministry).


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