Growing old used to be a positive achievement in the United States. Elders were revered for their wisdom and experience. The younger family or tribal members would listen, rapt, to the elders’ stories and instruction.
That was not so long ago. In our current society, elderly people in Kentucky often live separate from the rest of their family. They may see their relatives once a week, once a month, or only on holidays.
A Look at Different Societies
Jared Diamond, a professor of geography and physiology at the University of California in Los Angeles, has studied the way different societies treat their elderly. Some of his research and insights appeared in an article in UCLA Today a couple of years ago.
Diamond says that expecting parents to sacrifice for their children and for adult children to sacrifice for their elderly parents is a “naïve expectation.” What is natural, he says, are inherent conflicts of interest between generations.
“Parents and children both want a comfortable life,” Diamond states. “There are limits to the sacrifices that they’ll make for each other.”
Societies That Value the Elderly…
From the article, here are a few examples of societies that hold their elderly in high regard:
- In traditional villages in Fiji, old people live with and are taken care of by family and friends until they die.
- In some cultures, when parents grow old and lose their teeth, their children chew the food for them and then give it back.
- East Asian cultures rooted in Confucianism believe that it is “utterly despicable” to not care for aging parents.
- Mediterranean family homes are typically multigenerational.
- The elderly in traditional cultures still contribute to the society by gathering food, taking care of children, and making tools, weapons, baskets, and cloths.
- Many societies see their old people as tribal elders who are knowledgeable about medicine, religion, and politics.
- Many cultures do not preserve their history and culture by writing it down in books. They place a lot of value on the elderly, who pass on not only historical knowledge but practical knowledge, too, such as how to survive natural disasters.
…and Those That Don’t
A number of societies view their elderly as a burden:
- Americans highly regard independence, self-reliance, self-esteem, and the Protestant work ethic, which basically holds that when an individual is no longer able to work, he or she is of little value to society.
- Traditional nomadic tribes abandon their elderly; the alternative would be for younger members of the tribe to carry them, thus being unable to carry young children, tools, and provisions.
- In Paraguay, in which inhabitants are subject to periodic famines, the Aché Indians get rid of old people by having their young men kill them with an ax or spear or bury them alive.
We in the United States often do not recognize the value of elderly people. Diamond points out that they have gained a deeper understanding of human relationships and can think across a number of areas, strategize, and pass on their insight. “If you want to get advice on complicated problems, ask someone who’s 70; don’t ask someone who’s 25.”
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