It seems that most of us in Western culture would do whatever it takes to prevent aging – wrinkle creams, hair dyes, supplements, and even plastic surgery are commonplace. What is it that keeps us searching for the fountain of youth? Many believe it is our culture’s negative depiction of aging.
“There’s so much shame in our culture around aging and death,” said Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. “As people approach old age they frequently feel that there’s something wrong with them and that they’re losing value.”
Jared Diamond, a professor at UCLA, said that America’s high value of work ethic means that “if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places on you,” and that our “cult of youth” places an emphasis on independence and self-reliance – which are often lost with age.
In many other cultures, however, old age is revered. The elderly are highly valued, and the process of aging is embraced. Below are some examples of how cultural attitudes toward aging in non-US countries affect the life experiences of their inhabitants.
Chinese and Japanese
In the Chinese and Japanese cultures, filial piety – a virtue of respect for one’s father, elders, and ancestors from Confucian philosophy – is highly valued. In fact, it’s the law in China and other countries including India, France, the Ukraine, and Singapore. “Placing your parents in retirement homes will see you labeled as uncaring or a bad son,” said Beijing resident Zhou Rui. “To abandon one’s family is considered deeply dishonorable.”
Chinese seniors can sue their children over lack of financial and emotional support; many seniors have already sued their children for not visiting them regularly. Companies are required to give employees time off in order to tend to and visit their elderly parents.
Japan holds a national holiday every year on the third Monday of September to honor and show appreciation for the elderly. “Respect for the Aged Day” is a paid holiday from work where grandparents receive gifts and share a meal with their families. Even those who don’t have family are shown appreciation and respect and often receive free meals.
However, these cultures are beginning to see somewhat of a breakdown in these values as much of the younger generation continues to move to urban areas for work, while their parents usually stay in rural areas. The significant growth of the senior population because of China’s one-child policy and increasing life expectancy is also projected to change the social norms when it comes to senior care. Japan is also dealing with these changes; according to Social Gerontology: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, 7.2 percent of the Japanese population will be 80 or older in 2020 (compared to 4.1 percent in the U.S.).
Korean culture not only values filial piety, but also celebrates old age. Koreans traditionally hold large celebrations for their loved ones 60th and 70th birthdays. In the Asian Zodiac, 60 years is considered a full cycle, so this milestone birthday is when children will celebrate their parents’ entering old age. Another reason for celebration is that advances in modern medicine have allowed them to reach old age, where many of their ancestors did not. Sixty is also the age when, traditionally, a man can retire and rely on his children to support him. The 70th birthday calls for a similar celebration and is known as kohCui, meaning “old and rare.”
Traditionally, most Indians live in family units in which the seniors act as the head of the household. This, Diamond said, is in direct contrast to many families in the United States, “where routinely, old people do not live with their children and it’s a big hassle to take care of your parents even if you want to do it.” Achyut Bihani said that disrespecting seniors or placing them in a living facility is looked down upon in India, and that seniors are valued for their wisdom. “Advice is always sought from them on a range of issues, from investment of family money to nitty-gritties of traditional wedding rituals and intra-family conflicts. And this is not just passive advice; their word is final in settling disputes,” Bihani said. “The elderly are often the most religious and charitable members of the family.”
While contemporary American culture places a stigma of fear on death, Native American cultures accept death as a natural way of life and do not fear it. In these communities, it is expected that the elders pass on wisdom and life experiences to the younger family members, according to a study by the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
Mediterranean and Latin
As with the Indian culture, it is very common for multiple generations of Mediterranean and Latin families to live under one roof. The main priority is on family, and seniors share in the duties of the household. In a contemporary version of this, the oldest family members will often take care of younger children while the adult children and others work outside home to support the family. This allows the seniors to be fully involved and integrated in society even in old age.
In Greek culture, being old is something that is honored. When Arianna Huffington visited a monastery in Greece, she said the abbots were respectfully referred to as ‘Geronda,’ meaning ‘old man.’ “The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America,” Huffington said.
“Culture and Aging,” Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.