[In lieu of footnotes, I am listing sources at the end.]
“Know where you come from in order to know what your legacy will be” is the lesson in The Talmud, Pirke Avot, 3:1.
We used to know where we come from through gathering together for family reunions, special celebrations, Passover Seder, Chanukah, American (and Canadian) Thanksgiving, picnics and the like. These linked us to our living relatives through face-to-face contact.
The person in the family who organizes these events is called the “kinkeeper.” Sociologists began using this term around the 1980s. “Kinkeeping includes all of the efforts family members make to maintain connections among family members within and across generations.” This is also called “intergenerational solidarity.” This role was traditionally held by a woman in the family. A study by the State University of New York at Oswego in 2010 reported that kinkeeping in America was still strong, and still had the fancy-named characteristic of a “matrifocal-tilt,” or the role of a mother-figure in the family.
The study used an 18-item “Family Kinkeeping Scale” developed in 2001. The study is quality research, peer-reviewed and academically published. [My first degrees are in statistics and business. For 30 years I was the vice president of Market Research for the State of Florida Tourism Board (Visit Florida). I continue to be fascinated by academic research in all sorts of fields and how it can be applied to chaplaincy.]
This study showed the demographic trends that might affect the continuation of kinkeeping. On the one hand, health care and increases in life expectancy have given us more three-, four-, and even five-generational family structures. However, on the other hand, consider: “The average number of people in an American household decreased from 4.76 people in 1900 to 2.75 in 1980; the number of living relatives in the grandparent generations is on the rise…called the verticalization of the family tree…American families are becoming top heavy in that there are more elderly members alive than there are members of the younger generations to provide care for them.” Although this study did not show it (possibly because of the way the sample was drawn), the divorce rate can be reasonably expected to affect kinkeeping continuity: “…it is estimated that approximately 50% of the baby boom cohort’s marriages will end in divorce, and also that 60 percent of the remarriages teeming from these divorces will also end in divorce.”
My opinion is that there might be another force operating against kinkeeping. The astronomical marketing-driven, easy database-driven and DNA testing-driven interest in investing in genealogical research on who might possibly have been related to you, generally a long time ago, and generally not alive, might play against the time needed to get the current relatives together.
As a chaplain, although it is only anecdotal research, I hear over and over again from aging kinkeepers that no one in the family wants to take over the role. Although the older kinkeepers used cumbersome telephone trees and written invitations, the younger generations can use much easier databases, social media and e-mail programs.
A dangerous message this can send from the younger generation to the older is a negative response to Psalm 71:9, one of my favorite verses. Although these are the Psalms of David to G-d, I read this verse as a plea from the aging generation to the younger generation. The translation of the verse I prefer is: “Do not abandon me in my old age; when my own strength fails, do not forsake me.”
In life, we often come full circle. The fears in aging mimic the fears in childhood. Freud said that the child’s biggest fear is abandonment. In Psalm 71, we cry out “Do not abandon me in my old age.”
Feeling abandoned is feeling lonely, and we have a national epidemic of loneliness. Many hospitals have “NODA” programs, No One Dies Alone. If you are dying and have no friends/family, and do not want to die alone, then hospitals (and hospices) with NODA programs will provide bedside volunteers for you. Some prisons have similar programs, for any inmate that has no visitors, not necessarily the dying.
As a hospital chaplain, when I visit a patient who has visitors in the chairs at bedside, I have been given credit for coining the query, “Who are your cheerleaders?” Visitor chairs that are full are catalysts in the healing process; I believe the research supports that. One of the ways this is accomplished is through face-to-face contact with those who care about you. Phone calls do not come close to the power of face-to-face contacts, and iPads, Skype, and Face Time present privacy concerns in hospitals.
The 2018 study by Cigna on Loneliness in America characterized loneliness as an epidemic in America, concluding “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity.”
Consider these three findings from the study:
- “When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, more than half the respondents (54%) said they feel that way always or sometimes.”
- “At least two in five surveyed sometimes or always feel as though they lack companionship that their relationships are not meaningful, that they are isolated form others, and/or that they are no longer close to anyone.”
- “More than a third of the respondents report feeling that there is no one they can turn to, at least sometimes.”
The Cigna study showed that face-to-face contact is the great antidote in the epidemic of loneliness. Kinkeeping facilitates face-to-face contact. As you revise and edit your ethical wills, tell your children and grandchildren the importance to you of continuing to get together with relatives through face-to-face contact.
In 1 Samuel 20:18, Jonathan says to David, “You will be missed because your seat will be empty.” My prayer is that those seats not be empty until we are dead, and that we will be missed then.”
“The Kinkeeping Connection: Continuity Crisis and Consensus,” by Laura H. Brown and Sara B. DeRycke, (Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 8:338-353, 2010).
“Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index,” May 2018, https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.