Five Caregiving Lessons We Can Learn From Our Ancient Past

Cave painting

This cave painting, many thousands of years old, symbolizes a basic human trait: working together to take care of each other.


Why do humans live so long? Biologists tell us that only two other species (both of them whales) live much beyond the reproductive years of females. Examining this mystery, experts from the University of Edinburgh considered all the theories and called it "an evolutionary riddle." They noted, "Why we live beyond 50 has long puzzled scientists."

Experts agree that it's a complicated puzzle. But many believe that caregiving is an integral factor in our longevity, and that longevity is central to our survival as a species. Archeological and genetic evidence sheds light on this connection and can influence the way we think of our own caregiving role. Here are five things we know:

1. Caregiving is in our genes. Not so long ago, the dioramas in natural history museums portrayed our ancient ancestors as rather brutish. If old or injured members of a band of cavemen couldn't keep up, said the books, that was the end of them. But numerous archaeological finds have contradicted this view. Washington University in St. Louis anthropologist Erik Trinkaus recently reported on a 50,000-year-old burial of a Neandertal individual who had lived for some time with major, disabling injuries. Said Trinkaus, "More than his loss of a forearm, bad limp and other injuries, deafness would have made him easy prey for the ubiquitous carnivores in his environment and dependent on other members of his social group for survival." Many other ancient burials contain individuals with disabilities who could not have survived on their own. Someone must have helped them — early evidence for the long history of family caregiving.

2. Our elders helped us survive. Scientists say that having grandparents and other elder individuals was a big plus for our ancestors! Even if senior members of the band were less capable of hunting or foraging, they still had much to offer. How do you make a throwing spear? Which plants are poisonous? How do you process animal skins into comfy clothing? Ask the elders. Assistant professor Eric Schniter of Chapman University explained, "Not all abilities peak in middle adulthood as previously thought. As adults continue to age beyond their reproductive years, despite physical frailty setting in, they are often regarded as experts — such as in music and storytelling." And, noted Schniter, older adults are "the age group that excelled most at planning, conflict negotiation and delegation." Anthropologists believe that an increase in human longevity that occurred around 50,000 years ago sparked huge cultural advances for our species. It's not an overstatement to say that caring for elders ensured the very survival of the human race.

3. Caregiving shaped the human brain and body. Neurologists and genetics researchers say that caregiving-related traits lengthened the lives of humans. For example, according to a team from the University of California, San Diego, "Many human gene variants have evolved specifically to protect older adults against neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, thus preserving their contributions to society." Explained study author Dr. Ajit Varki, "Such genes likely evolved to preserve valuable and wise grandmothers and other elders." And here's another intriguing theory. Older adults often complain of waking up at night, unable to go back to sleep. Scientists from Duke University suggest, "Mismatched sleep schedules and restless nights may be an evolutionary leftover from a time many, many years ago, when a lion lurking in the shadows might try to eat you at 2 a.m." Added study author David Samson, "The idea that there's a benefit to living with grandparents has been around for a while, but this study extends that idea to vigilance during nighttime sleep."

4. As human civilization changes, caregiving adapts. Today, few humans live in small, nomadic bands, foraging off the land as did our ancient ancestors. Yet with the rise of farming, cities, and ever-changing technology, caring for elders remained an important value. Historians say the cliché of "sending elders off to die on an ice floe" is largely a myth, an aberration that would happen only during times of desperate hardship. Caregiving continued to change as our lives changed. Earliest written records show that respect and care for one's elders — "filial piety," it was called in ancient Asia — was a top virtue in civilizations such as ancient China and Rome. The desire to care for those who cared for us is hardwired into our brains, and, for most of us, provides a sense of well-being as we grow older. There's an old saying: "A mother is only as happy as her least happy child," and for adult children, our concern for our parents and other older relatives likewise can be very powerful.

5. We share the load. While we humans treasure our independence, we also are very much defined by our ability to cooperate and work together. Most likely, the children didn't provide all the care of those disabled individuals whom the archaeologists discovered. They needed to hunt and forage. Others of the band, perhaps other elders, surely helped. On a much larger scale, today's government resources, such as Social Security and area agencies on aging, and private organizations, such as senior living communities, meet the needs of seniors while allowing younger family members to continue their careers during their prime earning years. Home care is a growing example of the ways we've adapted to our times. Families know the value of having a professional caregiver help preserve the well-being of their elders. These caregivers provide personal care, such as bathing, dressing and grooming. They provide the transportation that lets seniors continue their connections in the community. They provide housekeeping, meal preparation and supervision to allow seniors to stay in their own homes, or in a more independent level of care at a senior living community. And continuing in the age-old tradition, today many professional in-home caregivers are themselves older adults.

Who knows what archaeologists and geneticists will learn next about the history of our human species? While we might not admire every trait we carry from our ancient past, caregiving is one of which we can be very proud.


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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.