When people grow old in many parts of the world, family and friends care for them at home until the end. In America, the elderly are more typically sent to an assisted living or a skilled nursing facility, a contrast that may appear selfish, uncaring and even callous.
It’s easy to make harsh comparisons between the East and West when it comes to the issue of elderly care. Values of Western cultures tend to celebrate youth, self reliance and individualism. Eastern cultures place enormous value on family and the elderly, often adhering to traditional age hierarchies. A traditional Asian household is far more likely to include a grandparent, whereas nursing homes in the United States, Australia and many parts of the West are increasingly overcrowded.
The Confucian doctrine of ‘filial piety’ continues to have a strong presence in Chinese and Asian culture. It simply means showing obedience, respect and deference to your elders. It’s considered a privilege to be in the enlightened company of an elder, and ancestral reverence remains vitally important today. In these and other cultures, it is considered utterly shameful not to take care of your aging parents. The same goes for Mediterranean cultures, where multi-generational families live together in the same house.
In stark contrast, Western culture encourages families to strike a balance between allegiance to the elderly and individual freedom. Quite often, the pursuit of individual freedom assumes priority, resulting in a meltdown of harmony and any reasonable sense of family dependence and unity. Routinely, seniors do not live with their children and it’s often considered a big hassle to take care of your parents, even if you really want to do so.
According to UCLA professor Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, “The idea that it’s human nature for parents to make sacrifices for their children and, in turn, for their grown children to sacrifice for their aging parents — turns out to be a ‘naïve expectation,’ This assumption, he said, ignores undeniable conflicts of interest between generations.” From a common sense perspective, “Parents and children both want a comfortable life — there are limits to the sacrifices that they’ll make for each other.”
Yet the fact remains, Diamond said, that many societies treat their elderly better than Americans do. In some cultures, he said, children are so devoted that when their aging parents lose their teeth the children will pre-chew their food. A closer look at how traditional societies value (or don’t value) their old people might teach us what to emulate and what to avoid.
While modernization has brought many benefits to the elderly — most notably improved health and longer life spans — it has also led to a breakdown of traditions. For example, multigenerational families are becoming a thing of the past in many modern cities in China, Japan and India, Diamond said, where “today’s young people want privacy, want to go off and have a home of their own.”
In America, Diamond said, a “cult of youth” and emphasis on the virtues of independence, individualism and self-reliance also make life hard on older people as they inevitably lose some of these traits. Then, there’s America’s Protestant work ethic, “which holds that if you’re no longer working, you’ve lost the main value that society places on you.” Retirement also means losing social relationships, which, coupled with America’s high mobility, leaves many old people hundreds or even thousands of miles away from longtime friends and family.
Modern literacy and its ties to technology are also putting the elderly at a disadvantage. “Modern literacy means that we look up things in books or on the Internet — we don’t go ask an old person,” Diamond said. “Formal educational systems, such as UCLA, replace old people with highly trained professors for transmitting specialized knowledge.”
And lightning-speed technological advances “mean that the things that old people do understand got technologically outdated,” Diamond said, adding that his ability to multiply two-digit numbers in his head has now been superseded by pocket calculators. He even admitted to having to consult his teenage sons to use the TV’s “remote with 47 buttons on it.”
Still, steps can be taken to improve the lives of our elderly, Diamond said. Understand their changing strengths and weaknesses as they age, he advised, and appreciate their deeper understanding of human relationships and their ability to think across wide-ranging disciplines, to strategize, and share what they’ve learned.
“So if you want to get advice on complicated problems, ask someone who’s 70; don’t ask someone who’s 25,” Diamond concluded. “Old people can have new value … although we often don’t recognize that this is possible.”
Please note that I am not crusading, advocating or presuming to be knowledgeable enough about this matter, to suggest or imply whether a particular tradition, society or culture is right or wrong, better or worst. That’s not the point. I simply wish to explore the general differences between cultures in an effort to increase awareness of same. Individuals from all cultures and backgrounds go to extraordinary lengths for their elderly parents and loved ones out of sincere love, respect and a strong sense of duty. In the end, there is no doubt that we can all learn a lot from each other.
Footnote: Quotations and comments by Professor Jared Diamond excerpted from a lecture he presented as part of the Molecular Medicine Institute Seminar series: “Honor or Abandon: Why Does Treatment of the Elderly Vary so Widely Among Human Societies?”