Power to the Grandparents

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It's a cute story: Amid the clamor and cheering over the elections, the person making history as the first woman to become Speaker of the House picks up the phone and says: "Do we have a baby coming?" On the other end: a baffled White House aide trying to connect her with the president.

You go, Granny! Nancy Pelosi, the feisty, spicy Democrat from California, had expected victory for her party, but she also was expecting her sixth grandchild. Which phone call -- the congratulatory one from the president or the excited one from her daughter -- was most on her mind? The birth of the grandchild.

This grandmother story is not just a saccharine footnote to election lore. It reflects the profound changes occurring in society because people are living longer, healthier lives -- and, as grandparents, they want a say in the political discourse.

Perhaps it is the combination of age and gender in the triumph of Nancy Pelosi that puts new focus on grandparents. It's hard to imagine a granddad in line for the third most powerful position in the country announcing that "everything stops" when a grandchild is coming, as Pelosi did repeatedly on the campaign trail. But the focus is overdue.

As a Power House Granny, Pelosi illustrates the enormous impact of the longevity boom.

First is physical. Pelosi, at 66, is a Glam-Fem. Her hair is dark and coiffed. Her teeth sparkle white. There's not a line on her face. Her eyes dance with life. She exudes confidence, and her words are intelligent, passionate, judicious. In short, she is making history with style.

How different she is from "Whistler's Mother," the portrait that James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted of his mother in 1871 when she was about the same age as Pelosi: a woman with downcast eyes, a sad mouth, ruddy cheeks, her hair wrapped in a bonnet. She is wearing a long black dress, presenting the image of an old woman on the sidelines of life.

True, Whistler's mother did not have access to all the appearance-enhancing technologies of the 21st century, but the difference between then and now is more than skin deep. Researchers estimate that as a population we have gained on average of 10 biological years compared with the generation of Whistler's mother. This means that many men and women today are biologically younger than their grandparents would have been at the same age.

This increase of "health span" -- years of healthy vigor and productivity -- is changing attitudes about aging and creating new expectations that older men and women will remain active and stay in the mainstream of public life.

Scarcely noticed last month in the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act were important provisions to promote work and community service, calling for "a comprehensive strategy for utilizing older individuals to address critical local needs of national concern."

For the first time, the act defined the term "civic engagement" as "an individual or collective action designed to address a public concern or an unmet human, educational, health care, environmental, or public safety need." In other words: Uncle Sam needs grandparents to make the world a better place for future generations.

So let Pelosi be the role model for the Super Grandparent. To be sure, being old is not the same as being wise. For generations, the makeup of the Senate has often resembled that of an assisted-living facility. But for too long, Congress has been in denial about aging, holding on to the "Whistler's Mother" stereotype.

Nancy Pelosi has made it chic to be a grandma. The Republicans may be the Grand Old Party, but Pelosi has turned the Democrats into the Party of Old Grands.

She faces many challenges in the next Congress. Not the least is to translate a cute anecdote about her grandchild into better policies for older Americans and the grandchildren they love so much.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company