Grandmother and granddaughter with celiac disease share a bond that cuts across generations

December 20, 2019

By Amy Ratner, Medical and Science News Analyst

Ava Giglio’s connection to her grandmother, Ginny Aires, goes beyond baking gluten-free cookies and apple pies together this Christmas.

Their bond stretches across the generations as the two are bound by being the only two people in their extended family who have been diagnosed with celiac disease.

That connection may wind even further back on the family tree, much like the roots of the Pennsylvania apple orchard that has been in Aires’ family since 1870. Aires’ grandfather and Giglio’s great, great grandfather left behind a journal in which he described frequent, debilitating stomach pain. No one is sure if he had celiac disease before his premature death, but the family suspects that might be the case.

For Giglio and Aires that story is part of a bigger picture in which the two find the challenges of dealing with celiac disease and the gluten-free diet easier because they have each other to lean on, confide in and bake gluten-free apple pies with.

“My grandmother is my number one guide on this journey,” Giglio, 22, says. “It’s been a wonderful experience in the midst of the medical difficulty.”

Aires, 83, was diagnosed in her early 60s, before Giglio was born. Giglio grew up knowing that her grandmother needed special food but never thought that would eventually apply to her too.

When she was in high school, Giglio started to have stomach aches, and her grandmother was the first to suggest she be tested for celiac disease because it is a genetic autoimmune condition. When Giglio’s blood tests and biopsy were positive for celiac disease, her grandmother quickly sent homemade gluten-free cookies and a new toaster that had not been cross-contaminated by gluten-containing breadcrumbs.

“For a long time, my grandmother was alone [in following the gluten-free diet], Giglio says. Now the two are a team, and the entire extended family is more aware of and understanding about making gluten-free accommodations when they get together. For example, at Giglio’s sister’s wedding shower, a gluten-free sushi station was set up for grandmother and granddaughter. “My grandmother said, ‘This table is just for us gluten-free girls,’” Giglio says.

The two also share a laugh and nod when someone in the family expresses surprise that gluten-free food tastes “just like the real thing.”

In the past, Aires adapted recipes to make them gluten-free, but Giglio has started to bake the apple pies central to her family history. “Apple pies are a big thing in our family,” Giglio says. Her grandmother and grandfather returned to Gardeners, PA, to run Peters Orchards after years of living in Washington, D.C.  While mastering a gluten-free crust is important, the family pays more attention to the apples themselves. “The focus is on the apples to let the flavor come out,” Giglio explains.

This year, Giglio had to travel across the country to share Christmas with her family. Following her graduation from Dartmouth in the spring, she started working in Los Angeles. While distance makes it harder to spend as much time with her grandmother, the two continue their strong relationship. Aires follows Giglio’s Instagram account as a way of keeping up with her granddaughter’s gluten-free adventures.

“I always loved my grandmother,” Giglio says. “But an unexpected benefit of celiac disease is that it made us closer in a way we weren’t before. Even though there are 61 years between us, my grandmother is my friend, too.”

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