R O B E R T L. R U B I N S T E I N







ABSTRACT. Almost nothing is concretely known about childless elderly in cross-cultural perspective. Few published papers have appeared on this social category in the West, although childless elders make up (at least) 20% of the population of elderly in many Western nations. Little is known about childless elderly in the Third World. This paper provides some theoretical background to the study of childless elderly and articulates some social policy concerns about them. It suggests that there are five important questions to examine concerning the fives of childless elderly. These include, how childless aged are or are not provided for in societies in which a great deal of the care of the aged is undertaken by children; how kinship functions as a matrix for care; how the increasingly common phenomenon of voluntary childless may give meaning to childlessness in late life; how childlessness fits with such social science models such as "the developmental cycle"; and, the relationship of this phenomenon to changing opportunities for women. The paper further examines how factors such as fertility, systems of caregiving, the social meaning of childlessness, alternatives to childlessness such as adoption, and educational and economic opportunities may affect the lives of childless elders.

Key Words:childless elderly; cross-cultural aging; aging theory

This essay, the three that follow - - by L. Z i m m e r on the G e n d e of N e w Guinea, W. D o n n e r on Anuta, a Polynesian outlier, and E. H u s e b y - D a r v a s on a village in H u n g a r y - - and one that will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology represent a special issue of sorts: an attempt to assess b o t h theoretically a n d t h r o u g h concrete ethnographic examples the topic of childlessness in late life. Little is systematically k n o w n about childless elderly in both developed and developing nations and indeed a search of the literature in the United States yielded only eleven published papers specifically on childless elderly, surprisingly few considering the large and ever-growing literature on aging. This is no empty concern. A b o u t 2 0 % of the populations of elderly in the U.S. and C a n a d a have no living children (Johnson and Catalano 1981; R e m p e l 1985). T h e percentages are c o m p a r a b l e in other industrialized nations. In Austria, for example, about 3 0 % of persons aged 60 and older have no living children ( A m a n n , D o b e r a u e r , D o b e r a u e r , H o e r l and M a g e 1980). While there are few statistics available o n childless elderly in developing nations, this does not m e a n that our attention should not be afforded them. W h y this focus on childless elderly? T h e r e are several salient reasons. First, a topic of immense interest to gerontologists and others in recent years has b e e n the provision of care for the elderly. A g a i n and again, f r o m

Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology2 (1987), 1-- 14. © 1987 by D. ReidelPublishingCompany.



place to place, care for the aged has been found to be a family affair, and children are often viewed as an individual's "insurance" for old age. In general we may conclude that the exigencies of care for impaired or infirm elderly fall in some combination onto those persons' spouses and, when elderly are either married or widowed, onto children of the elderly and their spouses. The caregiving roles of children have been described for many societies. However, many elderly have no children and no grandchildren. As Nydegger (1983: 28) has written, sizeable percentages of elderly have no surviving children and have only marginal and unenforceable claims on more distant relatives. Without personal resources and in the absence of institutionalized aid, their position is generally wretched, even in societies professing reverence for the aged. Yet much remains in the empirical documentation of the conditions of childless elderly. Indeed, even the basic question of who is defined as childless may differ from society to society, because definitions of kinship ties and parenthood differ. Further, the possible array of strategies by which childless elders arrange for or anticipate their care has very rarely been discussed. Second, it is often assumed by many who write about aging in nonWestern settings that principles of amity are more or less infinitely extendable to various individuals and groups and will be sufficient to facilitate and ensure care for those childless elderly in need. At best this is a debatable proposition. Myths of this sort have often been found to be suitable to Westerners -- and others -- as fact since there exists a pervasive idea in Western culture that things were somehow better in the past -- the "Golden Age" myth -- or somewhere else on the planet. Western gerontologists, too, having gone beyond the need to demolish such pervasive myths as that of the alleged abandonment of the elderly by their families (Brody 1985; Shanas 1979a, 1979b) may now be fleer to recognize negative aspects of older person's social relationships (Nydegger 1983; Rook 1984; Cohler and Lieberman 1980). As Johnson and Catalano (1981: 610) have noted, "it is possible that some researchers intentionally downplay the existence of childless aged out of concern that attention focused on them would lend indirect support to the widely held 'social myth' of family abandonment." Many recent studies have stressed how cultural principles that shape kinship notions are situated in specific behavioral content. To whatever extent idioms of kinship are used as the moral basis for the behavioral content of caregiving, the fact of the matter is that the existence of multiple roles for individuals who provide care may act in opposition to their best intentions. The phenomenon described by E. Brody (1981) as "women in the middle" concerns middle aged and even "young-old" women who work full time, raise a family, and provide



care for elders in need. This notion .is certainly applicable to the Third World although there is little literature on it. There are profound implications of such role strain for the childless elderly who may receive help from persons whose tie to the elder is less direct than that of a child. Because of role conflicts, an individual's resolve to provide care, for example, to older childless uncles or aunts or "parents" may never be acted upon. Third, one phenomenon which has caught the attention of sociologists and others in the West in recent years is that of voluntary childlessness: the childlessness that occurs when an individual or a married couple choose to not have children (Bloom and Pebley 1982; Burgwyn 1981; Campbell 1985; Faux 1984; Veevers 1980). Often framed as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s and in part an outgrowth of historically recent, enhanced opportunities for women, little has been written about the potential effects of voluntary childlessness of the relatively recent past or the present day on the elderly in the West. Only one impressionistic chapter has appeared (Burgwyn 1981). There is little literature about voluntary childlessness and its long term effects in non-Western societies. Fourth, the occurrence of childlessness flies in the face of such core social science conceptualizations as "the developmental cycle of domestic groups." Most models of life-span development feature parenting as normative and even necessary for positive psychological adjustment. Thus Erikson (1963), in a major theory of life-span development, posits a later life stage conflict between generativity and stagnation. Defined as an interest in guiding the next generation, generativity's major manifestation is having and raising children. Certainly, as Kotre (1984) has noted, there are many other ways of expressing generative concerns, such as technical or cultural generativity. Unfortunately, life-span psychosocial development in non-Western cultures has been rarely discussed, few models take it into late life, and the roles of generativity, both parental as well as technical and cultural, have rarely been examined. Finally, childlessness is germane to changing women's roles in the Third World (and elsewhere). Lower fertility and delayed age at birth of first child are demographic trends associated with industrialization. At the very least, having few or no children may be viewed by some women in developing nations as an attribute of personal or political power, since personal benefits may come through the self-esteem gained though the control of one's own body, increased time for other projects, and less frequent exposure to the potentially dangerous rigors of childbirth. Whatever women gain for themselves by being childless in the childbearing years or limiting numbers of births may, in effect, be a trade off against a less secure old age. Unfortunately, childlessness may tempt labelling as a deviant, as Veevers (1975) and others have noted for the childless of North America.



In the remainder of this essay I wish to briefly consider some of the many factors pertinent to childlessness in later life. Topics to be discussed include the effects of fertility; systems of care; social meanings of childlessness; alternatives to childlessness such as adoption; and education and economic opportunities. Fert///ty Demographers and others have frequently speculated about why people have children and why some do not (as well as ways of making those who have many have fewer). Given wide human cultural variation and the difficulties encountered in truly understanding peoples' motivations, this is a topic that it is really very difficult to understand. Certainly, an analysis of motivations from the perspective of cost versus benefits is useful, although we must keep in mind that it is not the only sort of analysis available. A large number of costs and benefits in having children have been listed by demographers and others (Beach, Townes, Campbell and Keating 1976; Callan 1980; Fishbein 1972; Hoffman and Hoffman 1973; Jaccard and Dividson 1972; Ramu and Tavuchis 1986). From the perspective of the elderly, some of these benefits include economic and social security, self-esteem gained from having acted in a normative way, health monitoring, companionship, achievement of a sense of continuity -however culturally defined -- and pride, a family to be involved and feel needed in, the presence of grandchildren, and the potential and actuality of care. The burdens of having children may be fewer in number but are no less salient. For the elderly these may include such weights as continued unwanted involvement in childrens' fives, lack of independence, mental aggravations of various sorts, continuing financial demands, and an inability to transcend undesired aspects of the parental role. Childlessness in late life does not merely consist of the opposite of these burdens and benefits. In the West, at least, it appears that many childless individuals view their childlessness positively and the very few studies of well being which have compared childless and parental elderly point to an equivalent degree of overall well-being (although they speculate on the distinctive or "parallel" components of well-being for childless elders; Beckman and Houser 1982; Houser, Berkman, and Beckman 1984; Rempel 1985). Major burdens of childless elderly in the West appear to be the fear and actuality of the lack of social support and health care. Major benefits seem to include a sense of independence and, for many, a distictive sense of well-being. Certainly, household composition, accessibility of others (or the lack of extrahousehold social isolation) and mode of residence are major determinants of the availability of support. Marital status, too, appears to have, at least in the West, some effect on how childless will anticipate social needs in late life. Thus, Johnson and Catalano (1981) found childless married couples "socially regressed"



while childless singles (never married, divorced, or widowed) anticipated later life social needs and acted to set up potential caregiving relationships. There are basically three reasons persons are childless in old age. The first two reasons are directly dependent on events in the childbearing years. These are involuntary and voluntary childlessness. Involuntary childlessness refers to both biological infertility as well as the specifics of mate selection. Thus, in some sense, the possession of a stigmatized social identify that may make a person undesirable as a sexual partner leads to a childlessness that may be considered involuntary. Voluntary childlessness refers to a conscious decision for a no-parity status. While voluntary childlessness is often viewed as a recent social phenomenon, in fact there is evidence that both childlessness and low-parity status have consciously occurred prior to the last few decades in the West and elsewhere. The third sort of childlessness in old age results from the death of a child. There is little doubt that the death of a child is one of the most devastating experiences a person can have. Such a death may occur when a parent is young or middle aged, and its effects may linger into late life, or an adult child may die when a parent is aged. Considering the large number of wars and other man-made and natural disasters which have occurred in the past fifty years; certainly a not insignificant number of older people have been made childless in this fashion. It is likely that some of the effects of the death of an adult child or children, leading to childlessness in later life, may be modified by the presence of the child's spouse and grandchildren, but nevertheless, the death of an adult child is traumatic, profound, and sad in the extreme. This, too, may be complicated by social conditions. For example, Guemple (1969) describes Eskimo elders who have survived their children. They may be accorded respectful treatment as long as they are productive, but otherwise they may become extremely isolated or reduced to extreme poverty.

Social Support System The social support system refers to that segment of an individual's total social network which provides a degree of instrumental and affective care for an elder in need. It is useful to view the informal or natural social support system from the perspective of its own "natural history." Without deficits, an elder, as any individual in society, engages in the general give and take of social life. In need, relationships shift as a support or caregiving network emerges. It has been shown again and again how children, both in the presence of an infirm elder's spouse, and in that individual's absence, are key providers and arrangers for care. Evidence from North America (Brody 1985), South America (Denton 1981; Kagan 1980), Europe (Baptista Quaresma nd; Hobman nd; Szwarc nd), China (Ikels 1980), Japan (Palmore 1985), the Pacific (Rubinstein and Johnson 1984), and Africa (Adeokun



nd; Jack, Adeokun and Jaiyesimi 1984; Traore 1984) overwhelmingly demonstrate the significance of children as caregivers. Kagitcibasi (1982), reporting on responses to a cross-national survey of parents about old age security and the significance of children, found that in each of five primarily developing nations (Turkey, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan) in which samples of two to three thousand married respondents were interviewed, from 71% to 98% of male and female respondents agreed that a "very important" purpose in having children was to provide for care for themselves in old age. In South Korea and Singapore, these figures were in the 44% to 54% range, while only 7--8% of respondents in the U.S. and West Germany agreed to this proposition. These marked differences indicate the degree to which, in developing nations, the presence of children is tied to support of the aged. Yet these figures hide an important aspect of this potential for care. Responses from the Western parents indicate that possible concerns over care in later life are of only minor importance in having children; yet it is these very same persons, when older and in need, who will rely on their children as key supports. The little research on social supports of childless elderly in the West demonstrates an increased reliance on formal services by childless elders in need, when these are available (Cicirelli 1981; Kivett and Learner 1980). In the West, research is equivocal about the adequacy of social support for childless elderly. Six studies have examined the adequacy of social supports for childless elderly, supporting rather different conclusions. Two studies of social supports of childless elderly have found them to be adequate and comparable to those of elderly with children. Keith (1983) examined patterns of assistance to very old parents and childless older persons and examined the relationship between help received and wellbeing. In her analysis of results from interviews with 103 childless and 448 parental elderly indicated that approximately equal percentages of childless and parental elderly performed most of ten tasks, such as laundry, mealpreparation, housework, errands, shopping, advice, financial support, and yardwork, by themselves or with the help of a spouse. She concluded that, given the presence of a spouse, childlessness did not adversely affect receiving help in later life. The potential security in knowing that children were available to help with tasks was not reflected in life satisfaction scores. Goldberg et al. (1986) examined social support of 52 childless, spouseless older women. They found that most were able to meet important needs with the aid of primary group helpers rather than formal supports. They noted that this sample was mostly of young-old and in good health, and questioned the validity of their findings for other, less well off, aged. Two studies have questioned the generalized notion of support adequacy by examining differences and potential differences among different types



of childless elderly. Cicirelli (1981) studied social support and service needs of childless elderly by grouping together as a sample 121 childless and one-child elders and contrasting them with a sample of 179 elders with two or more children. Hypothesizing that childless and one-child aged would substitute for a lack of supporters, he found this group evidenced stronger relations with cousins, nieces, and nephews than did the other group. A second level of analysis specified a number of subgroups including the never married, the always childless, those who had lost all children, and those who had lost some children but for whom one child survived. He found, significantly, that actual support and service use and preferences for service provision varied significantly on the basis of these subgroupings. Similarly, Johnson and Catalano (1981) surveyed a sample of 28 childless elderly who h a d recently been released from an acute care hospital. The ten currently married childless aged were the most socially isolated. They described the life style of these childless older couples as "socially regressed." Eighteen not married (never married, widowed, divorced) childless subjects were more involved with kin, less socially isolated, and practiced "anticipatory socialization" by arranging potential supports against the possibility of need and dependency. Finally, two studies have found a degree of dissatisfaction or inadequacy with the social supports and relations of childless elderly in the U. S. Singh and Williams (1981), in a secondary analysis of four national surveys, found that childlessness had significant negative effects, unrelated to demographic variables and level of interaction with relatives and friends, on family satisfaction. They also point out the compound social effects of being childless in late life and living alone. This point was taken up by Bachrach (1980) who explored the relationship between childlessness and social isolation. She found that, compared to elderly parents, the childless were more likely to live alone and, if living alone, were less likely to have had social contacts in the past day or so. Poor health and working class background were found to negatively color effects of childlessness on social isolation. These six studies give no uniform picture of social support adequacy for childless elderly in the U.S. Following Nydegger, it seems likely that those childless elderly who in addition have small social networks and no other resources must, from place to place, be most vulnerable and in need. Almost nothing has been reported specifically about the support needs and support adequacy of childless elderly in developing countries. This situation points to the amount of research which remains to be done on this issue. What it means to have children or to be childless differs from culture to culture and from place to place. Certainly, childlessness has important



meanings in Western cultures. There, demographers, sociologists and others who have written about fertility have found a very strong bias towards pronatalism; having children is culturally, psychologically, and socially condoned and the opposite often unthinkable or considered deviant. This overall attitude seems to be common in many places in the Third World (Denga 1982; Rosenblatt, Peterson, Postner, Cleveland, Mykkanea; Foster, Holm, Joel, Keisch, Kreuscher and Phillips 1973). In the West, childlessness is almost universally viewed, in one way or another, as negative. Blake (1979) found that 50% of a U.S. sample questioned on attitudes toward childlessness thought childless people to be unfulfilled or lead empty lives. CaHan (1985) found that parents with larger families were judged as more likely to hold positive personality attributes. Houser, Berkman and Beckman (1984) noted that dominant cultural sentiments have painted the childless as "lonely, unhappy, maladjusted, unlikeable [and] unsatisfied with later life." Veevers (1973) in an analysis of the meanings of nonparenthood, found support for a popularlyheld conception of this status as religiously immoral, irresponsible, unnatural, gender role rejecting and maladjusted. Voluntary childlessness is often stigmatized or evaluated negatively. Polit (1978) in a study of voluntary childless persons found them to be perceived as less socially desireable, less well adjusted, less nurturant, more autonomous, and more socially distant than individuals of other fertility statuses. The paper by Eva Huseby-Darvas in this issue outlines an extreme form of sociocultural distaste for childlessness. In her historically-situated account of life in a Hungarian village, she discusses the experiences of childless older women over time. She shows how, both in traditional, male-dominated village society and in the present day circumstances of feminization of village culture, women acted and act to control and manage fertility -- having children -- so that for women, having children was both a necessary aspect of personhood, yet one which must be sensitive to situational economic constraints. In the past, she notes, childless women were "so ashamed" because of their inability to conceive or bear children, that they either left the village in disgrace and took up a life as a low status urban domestic or they committed suicide. Because childlessness, whatever the cause, was considered the woman's fault in this ideologically male-centered society, childlessness was an adequate basis for divorce and a divorced woman was socially without moorings. Urban employment necessitated a separation from potential village supports and thus the potential of a more secure old age. As the case material beautifully illustrates, the small pensions provided by the Government at the present time, as well as relatives and friends, are crucial to these childless elders' present day continued ability to subsist, remain active, and to become involved in generative roles of older women. Whether or not a person is childless in whatever the local idiom of kinship



relations, there may exist mechanisms which foster the redistribution of children to adults, or conversely, adults to children. Such mechanisms must be viewed in life course perspective: the goals and assumptions which lead an individual or couple to adopt a child when that individual or couple is relatively young may change when that couple is older. The occurrence of adoption or fosterage is a widespread phenomenon in non-Western societies. A major difference between Western and nonWestern adoption is that in the West the person who is adopted is generally unknown as an individual to the adoptor, while elsewhere, the adopted may be well known, indeed, may be a close relation, such as a sibling's child (Carroll 1970). It is mostly children who appear to be those adopted. I have come across no literature which describes the adoption of "middle-aged" persons by elders. In the West, children are generally adopted as stand-ins for biological children (who were never had). In other parts of the World, children are adopted for a wide variety of reasons. Certainly, anticipating the needs of a childless old age may be important here. However, adoption or fosterage may not be an adequate means of acquiring support for childless elderly in later life. As Guemple (1969) has described for aging Eskimos, still vital elderly may adopt children for companionship and help in labor, and as someone to care for, but once an elder becomes too frail or incapacitated, and he or she can no longer care for the child, the natural parents may reclaim the child, leaving the elder in a position that is described as "desperate." William Donner, in an essay on the Polynesian outlier of Sikaiana, describes a situation which is quite different. Locating the occurrence of childlessness in the culturally-meaningful context of reciprocity, caring, and kinship, Donner shows how fosterage is a common event in Sikaiana society. While there exists a distinction, on Sikaiana, between "natural" parents and foster parents, as well as the idea that childlessness represents a "stopping up" of lineage generativity, childless elderly seem to have adequate care, to be involved in island happenings, and to lead productive and meaningful lives. Indeed, as Donner notes, the idea of abandoned or uncared-for persons is alien to Sikaiana culture. The question remains, of course, of how the accelerated stresses of modern life will continue to affect this notion. The extent that changing possibilities for women as well as general effects of modernization have affected reduced fertility of childlessness remains to be assessed. It may be commonly believed, for example, that the primary reason that present day childless elderly in the West were childless is due to the higher prevalence of involuntary childlessness or infertility in the past, now substantially ameliorated through medical technology. This is only partially true. While certainly involuntary factors accounted for a larger percentage of childlessness in the past, voluntary



factors have been important, qTolnay and Guest (1982) analyzed childlessness in America between 1900 and 1930, across various geographic areas, and found that much variation in childlessness was due largely to voluntary choice on the part of many American women, particularly in the North Atlantic region, while in the agricultural South almost all childlessness was probably involuntary. This variation, they feel, reflects a transition to lower fertility associated with industrialization. The role of choice earlier in the century has also been stressed by Mattessich (1979). The consensus of work on explanations of childlessness in the West is that it is explained by a number of situational factors. In general, besides nonmarriage (Pohlman 1970) four major correlates to childlessness for women have been outlined. These are age at marriage (DeJong and Sell 1977; Ritchey and Stokes 1974; and Veevers 1971, 1979); advanced education and student status (Gustavus and Henley 1971; Nason and Paloma 1975; Ritchey and Stokes 1974; DeJong and Sell 1977; and Veevers 1973); both high and low income level (Poston 1974; Veevers 1979); and labor force participation and the availability of upper level jobs for women (DeJong and Sell 1977; Hanson, Cornwell, DeJong and Stokes 1984; and Silka and Kiesler 1977). A number of other specific factors have been noted as correlated with childlessness in the West. These include low religiosity (Veevers 1979); marital disruption (Griffith, Koo and Suchindram 1984); urban residence (Veevers 1979); desire to maintain a given quality of life or fear of loss of control (Harper 1980; Reading and Amatea 1986), or a way of reducing "role overload." Another stream of research has attempted to seek more psychological explanations for childlessness. These include an examination of such factors as a low degree of family warmth, high degree of family conflict, poor parenting, oppressive or abusive childhoods, a childhood overburdened with sibling care, or weak identification with the mother (Frankel 1976; Harper 1980; Houseknecht 1982; Reading and Amatea 1986; Veevers 1979). While each of these issues is no doubt germane to the reproductive histories of many aged childless women in the West, economic factors have been especially important. Davis (1982) examined the occurrence of childlessness and singleTchild fertility among U.S. women born in the years 1891--1925, that is to say, current day older women. She found that rates of childlessness varied considerably over this period. A marked rise in childless and one-child families was found during the 1930s -- the Depression era -- while cohorts in childbearing years before or after that decade had a greater number of children. Davis found no evidence to explain these changes on the basis of health conditions or sociodemographic variables such as education level, age at marriage, or marital history, but rather found that the interactive effects of economic circumstances and reproductive ideology both brought about women limiting




their number of children in a time of economic hardship and providing justification for this. The effects of the interrelationship between economic factors, changing employment opportunities, and the meaning of childlessness in old age in a particular cultural context are described, for one Third World society, in Laura Zimmer's paper on childlessness and old age in New Guinea. Among the Gende, the existence of a large number of young migrants, residing away from the village, has brought about gross disparaties in village wealth, due to the remittances that some migrants send to their families and failure of others to send anything at all, leading to uncertainity and inequality in the village economy. This situation has led to the existence of a class of elders who, although they have natural children, have been, in a de facto sense, left childless from the point of view of the social, economic and relational aspects of having children. Because reciprocity is the basis of social relationships in Gende society, those childless elderly -- with or without natural children -- who are only minimally involved in community affairs may be especially vulnerable to social isolation. It should be noted that the papers which follow are all examples of the point that while biological processes such as reproduction or nonreproduction are "natural," their meanings are cultural and situational. Each of the papers locates the phenomenon of childlessness in old age in a particular culturally-meaningful context. To whatever extent the fact that some people have children and that these children provide care for their aged parents in later life may be considered an expression o f "natural" filial relations, and to whatever extent it is "natural" that some people do not have children, the specific meanings of these are cultural. The meanings are socially developed within a given cultural system and are further shaped as they intertwine with ongoing social events.



Adeokun, L. A. nd. The Elderly All over the World: Nigeria. Paris: CIGS. Amann, A., B. Doberauer, W. Doberauer, J. Hoerl and G. Mage 1980 Austria. In International Handbook on Aging. E. Palmore, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Baptista Quaresma, M. nd. The Elderly All over the World: Portugal. Paris: CIGS. Bachrach, C. A. 1980 Childlessness and Social Isolation among the Elderly. Journal of Marriage and the Family 42: 627--636. Beach, L. R., B. Townes, F. Campbell and G. W. Keating 1976 Developing and Testing a Decision Aid for Birth-Planning I)ecisions. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 15:99--116. Beckman, L. J. and B. B. Houser 1982 The Consequences of Childlessness on the SocialPsychological Well-Being of Older Women. Journal of Gerontology 37: 243--250. Blake, J. 1979 Is Zero Preferred?: American Attitudes toward Childlessness in the 1970s. Journal of Marriage and the Family 41: 245 --257.


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Philadelphia Geriatric Center, 5301 Old York Road, Philadelphia, PA 19141, U.S.A.

Childless elderly: Theoretical perspectives and practical concerns.

Almost nothing is concretely known about childless elderly in cross-cultural perspective. Few published papers have appeared on this social category i...
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