Connecting with cousins

Here's a question you may not have been asked. How many cousins do you have? Reflect for a minute — do a quick count.

I have 19 cousins. Two of them showed up on our doorstep recently, Norwegian-speaking men in their seventh decade who told me stories I'd never heard and recalled events I'd long forgotten. They provided elaboration on their lives — and I gained insight into my own.

The visit prompted thoughts about the role cousins can play as we age. They are, after all, our age peers — once removed from siblings. We share common ancestors so they offer an indisputable link to our genetic core.

Powerful stuff if you let it loose. Why have I not thought about this before?

It may be a way to increase social connectedness for aging adults who don't have enough friends. It's a particularly important issue because as we age we are at substantial risk of losing affiliations — just at a time when we need them most.

My husband seemed to enjoy the unexpected visit from the lovely Norwegians, so I posed the idea of a road trip in which we would visit all our respective cousins and catalogue the experience. It was not well received. I knew the minute he raised one eyebrow and looked at me like I'd lost my mind that we would probably not be going. But my spouse (who has even more cousins than I do) is willing to keep talking about cousinship. I'm waiting for just the right moment to re-spring the trip idea.

Once you start considering this topic it's hard to put it aside until you've mentally gathered up all the children of your various aunts and uncles and accounted for them. The process itself has many benefits. It can serve as excellent cognitive stimulation and may even help improve your memory function. Really. I'm serious. This could replace crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Don't forget to categorize your cousins. Deceased and non-deceased is fairly easy but the breakdown of first, second and third cousins and the interplay of half and step cousins can be a bit more challenging. Once you have the total, the possible social interactions are huge. Cousin relationships offer an inter-generational opportunity we are definitely not maximizing. Just thinking about it makes me want to write a letter to one of my cousins telling them how my week is going.

One caveat, if you don't have a lot of cousins, maybe you could borrow somebody else's. I have a cousin near Fargo, N.D., who would be delighted to be contacted — as long as I vouched for you and you liked lefse.

Once I start considering the possibilities, I realize others have been thinking about this, too, including the authors of "Keep Choosing, Keep Living: Three Cousins Invite You to a Conversation about Coming of Age" ( I've not started reading their book so I cannot really recommend it. But one website I found gave it rave reviews. Well, actually one review — but that person gave it a lot of stars.

There's a lot to ponder here. And I have a trip to plan.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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