Ageing is more than a biological process. It is also deeply rooted in our cultural norms. Cultural beliefs significantly influence the way we perceive the ageing process in both ourselves and in others.
On the one end of the continuum it is perceived as undesirable due to the loss of beauty and the possible onset of illness, taking us ever closer to death and on the other end of the continuum it is celebrated because of the wisdom age brings and the status and respect that accompanies it.
In terms of social care, some cultures, mainly Western and Japanese cultures, strive to ensure independence for as long as possible. On the other hand cultures such as India favours family care for the elderly.
In contrast to Western cultures including the U.S.A. and the U.K., Mediterranean cultures, Greece being an example, as well as Eastern cultures such as India, China Korea and Japan hold the elderly, especially men, in high regard. Traditional cultural values insist on respect for older people and the perceived wisdom that accompanies age and experience. In China in particular this extends to a deference and respect for one’s ancestors as well as one’s parents.
The regard for ageing in Eastern cultures can trace its roots back to Confucian principles, which insists on respecting one’s elders. It is the duty of the younger generation to care for the elderly members of their family. The deference for their elders extends to the wider society and includes people in positions of authority.
In the West on the other hand, we have been influenced by a Protestant work ethic, which suggests that if you are no longer able to work, you have lost your value to society. This is reflected in the way the elderly is viewed in society. Our Western societies are also highly mobile, which means the elderly may find themselves a long way from friends and family and a support network.
Not only is respect for one’s elders in Eastern cultures perceived as one’s duty, it is also considered the highest virtue. Sadly, a Western influence is creeping into the larger cities and communities. However, placing one’s parents in an elderly home remains a deeply dishonourable act.
Interesting, referring back to my post of last week, what happens if you do not have children? It is a particular problem in China with their one child policy, rising life expectancy and as in the West, an increasing ageing population. In Singapore they go one step further and parents can sue their children for an allowance and if the adult children fail to comply, they could face a jail sentence of six months.
Cultural differences also include how we perceive death. In some Western cultures death is a taboo subject and we avoid talking about it at all cost. It is something to be feared and when it happens it evokes a strong emotional reaction to the loss of a loved one. In contrast, other cultures such as native and African-American cultures celebrate the passing of a loved one and the life lived and perceives it as the natural rhythm of life.
Particularly in Western cultures ageing is viewed negatively and to be avoided at all cost. The older you get the more invisible you become as far as the younger generation is concerned. The media and fashion begins to ignore you unless it becomes a political issue, as we are currently experiencing in the U.K. with the crisis in social care.
However, it continues to reflect the negativity associated with age and the burden it places on society. Is it any wonder therefore that we fear the process of ageing thereby creating self-fulfilling prophecies as we age instead of living life to the full?
In some cultures we find generations living together with the elderly perceived as the head of the family. In India many live in joint family units with the elderly supported by the younger generation. The elders also play a significant role in the raising of their grandchildren. Their opinion and advice is sought on many different matters and more importantly, valued. Where there are disputes, the final word lies with the parents.
During my years spent in Austria I observed the same practice in the rural communities. The eldest son would inherit the farm and once he marries, he and his wife would live with his parents. In time they would take care of the parents and assume the responsibility for the running of the farm.
Alas, the older traditions are changing in many cultures and we all face the global challenge of an ageing population. This puts pressure on the younger generation due to an increased need for social care; a wicked problem without easy answers.