Walking through ageing: Culture and traditions

Paseo por el envejecimiento: Cultura y tradiciones  - Sociedad, Investigación

The world population is ageing, and that is an undeniable fact. Throughout the world, people live longer thanks to advances in health, nutrition, and technology. This population change brings incredible possibilities, but also a new set of challenges. The interesting thing, besides all the challenges that await us, is to see how each culture takes care of its elders and know if we are prepared to face it.

The writer and scholar Jared Diamond analyzes the great differences in the way societies around the world see and treat their senior citizens. Some groups revere and respect their older members, while others see them as senile and incompetent, which makes them the target of jokes. In some societies, children take care of their parents at home, in others, children admit their parents in residences where others take care of them. Some cultures see their elders as a burden and drain of resources and opt for more violent approaches to care for the elderly. Here's how people around the world treat their oldest members.

First, who is considered “older”?

The United Nations determines that you begin to consider an elderly person when they are 60 years old. Annually, in October, the International Day of Older Persons is celebrated to recognize the contributions to society made by those who are no longer so young. According to Diamond, the perceived value of the elderly is an important factor in determining whether older people are respected. In the United States, an older person is defined as someone who is over 65 years old. In New Guinea, anyone 50 years of age or older is considered a lapun, or an “elder”.

Where do older people live?

The Confucian teaching of filial piety determines the living conditions of the elderly in Asia. Approximately three-quarters of elderly Japanese parents live with their adult children, a pattern replicated in Korea and China. The Law for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly requires that children visit their parents frequently, no matter how far they live. If the children do not comply, they could face fines or jail. “We raise our children to take care of us when we get older”, a senior citizen comments in an interview with the BBC.

But, of course, we do not need Confucian ideals to value the time spent with the elderly. Article 207 of the French Civil Code of 2004 requires that adult children “stay in touch” with their elderly parents. The law was approved, according to an article in The Week, in response to a study that showed a high suicide rate among elderly people in France.

In India and Nepal, the tradition has long been that a newly married couple will move with the groom's family, to what is called a “patrilocal” residence. But according to the Human Development Survey of India at the University of Maryland, changing economic forces are reshaping residency patterns. As parts of the country are urbanized, the children move hundreds of kilometers from their parents. The governments of India and Nepal are addressing this through the development of state programs for the care of the elderly.

What do people around the world call their elders?

The attitude of a culture towards the elderly is often reflected in their language. Honorific suffixes such as “-ji” in Hindi allow speakers to add an extra level of respect to important people, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who is often referred to as Gandhiji. The word “mzee” in Kiswahili, spoken in many parts of Africa, is a term used by younger speakers to show a high level of respect for elders. And as this report reveals, the Hawaiian word “kūpuna” means “elders”, with the additional connotation of knowledge and experience.

In Japan, the suffix “-san” is often used for elders and reveals the nation's deep veneration for the elderly. Annually, the country celebrates the Day of Respect for the Elderly, an important day. The Japanese also see a person's 60th birthday as a great event. “Kanreki”, as the celebration is called, marks a rite of transition to old age.

How is the end of life around the world?

The decisions at the end of life drastically vary in all cultures. Some societies do their best to keep their elders alive, other groups see old and frail members as a burden and take action to end their lives. Diamond notes that the so-called “eldercide” usually occurs in communities that are nomads or that live in difficult climates with limited resources.

According to a study, the Chukchi of Siberia practices voluntary death, in which an elderly person asks to die at the hands of a close relative when he is no longer in good health. And Diamond writes that the Indian Crows in the Nordic and American tribes in Scandinavia follow similar practices: the elderly put themselves in an impossible situation, like embarking alone on a journey of no return.

On the other hand, the Greek island of Icaria seems to have magic that extends life on its soil. Residents of this small Mediterranean island are four times more likely than their American counterparts to live to be 90 years old and live eight to ten more years after being diagnosed with cancer or cardiovascular disease. Its residents do not rush into life: they stay up late, eat Kalamata olives, drink tea and swim in the crystal clear waters. The response to the longevity of this island probably lies in its patterns of eating and relaxed lifestyle, but nobody can definitely explain the magic behind this island of centenarians.

Photo: Eric Didier