The West’s Obsession with Youth
No one wants to grow old – in the United States, that is. The United States, along with many other Western countries tend to value a fresh youthfulness over the wealth of experience, knowledge, and skills that come along with living for over half a century. Age is associated with an inability to work, despite the fact that people are working harder and retiring later and that our society has advanced well past the Protestant work ethic of the early 1900’s, which ties the value of an individual to their ability to work, or the Neolithic culture of hunting and foraging until you can’t. If we have advanced past the necessity of youthful mobility to continue to be present in daily life why does our culture continue to value the young over the old? It’s time to start taking a page out of another country’s book and begin to respect our elders the way that they do. Maybe the negative association with age has less to do with body capability and more to do with the social and cultural mindsets that we adopt all over the world.
Asia Has a History of Respect for the Elderly
In Asia, people are bound to Filial Piety – a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. It dates back to traditional culture and from a young age it instills the idea that you will one day be taking care of your parents the way they take care of you.
China has taken the traditional value one step further. In 2013, China enacted an “Elderly Rights Law” that lays out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the needs of the elderly in their lives. The law says that children must “never neglect or snub elderly people” and must make frequent visits regardless of distance. If an adult child doesn’t comply they face the possibility of fines or even jail time. A little respect goes a long way in China.
In Korea, not only is age respected but also celebrated. 60th and 70th birthday parties are considered huge life events and include a big party and feast. As in China, it is the assumed responsibility of the child that one day they will be taking care of their parents. It’s considered an honorable right of passage and is something that children are proud to do one day.
Japan has the world’s oldest population with a quarter of the people over the age of 65. Because such a large percentage of the population is older, Japan has found a number of creative ways to adapt. At banks, post offices, and hotel counters you will find boxes of reading glasses available for anyone to use. Likewise, books, magazines, train schedules and other public signage is printed in both normal sized and larger text so that everyone can read what is going on around them. Crosswalks have a button you can press if you will need more time crossing the street. Escalators have been adapted for wheelchair use. And love stories about older couples are finding their place in bookstores right next to the stories about teenage lovers. To top it all off, the third Monday of every September is Respect for the Aged Day. It’s a national holiday so everyone has the opportunity to join in on the celebration. Meals and gifts are shared with the aged and in some villages children will put on big performances with songs and dancing. Japan is showing us that it is okay to grow older, that you can join in on big celebrations and that the world will adapt with you. These are just a few of the ways that Japan has altered everyday items and made them easy for older people to use. Changes like these show people that getting older is not something to be ashamed or afraid of because there will be a place for you.
For Mediterranean and Latin Cultures it’s Family First
Imagine living under the same roof as your children, grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren. That’s what life is like in many Mediterranean and Latin cultures. A big, happy family is the number one priority, which means multiple generations tend to live under the same roof. It’s a situation that works for everyone. Grandparents look after the children while the middle generation can go to work secure in the fact that their children are safe at home. Every age group is responsible for someone or something and grandparents have the ability to pass on invaluable wisdom to the children around them. Respect exists as a cultural norm and in Greece calling someone an “Old Man” is a term of endearment, to be old means to have lived a life full of experiences children can only dream of.
While it might be more common in the United States for older people to move into assisted living facilities, we are seeing a rise in multigenerational housing. Thus far the trend primarily includes people from Hispanic and Asian backgrounds, as well as other immigrant or foreign-born backgrounds, who emphasize the family far more than the traditional American culture does. We haven’t yet fully embraced the idea of multiple generations living under the same roof, but as the Baby Boomers are quickly reaching retirement age, we are seeing an increase in the housing options that are becoming available. Currently, around 5% of people above the age of 65 are living in an assisted living facility. The introduction of ACLF (Adult Congregate Living Facilities), that separates residences by the individual level of care needed and allows for more independence, are quickly becoming a more popular option than traditional assisted living facilities.
Older People are Truly Valued in Scotland
Scotland implemented a “Reshaping Care for Older People” in 2013 with the vision that “Older people are valued as an asset, their voices are heard and they are supported to enjoy full and positive lives in their own home or in a homely setting.” After listening to the wants and needs of older people they began to implement programs that would move away from institutional care and instead focus on preventive care that would allow people to age in their homes. Thanks to this program, the cultural thinking has shifted dramatically and they have seen a 6.8% reduction in emergency admissions bed days as well as the creation of an additional 1456 homes for older and disabled people. Scotland listened and created a program that is benefiting the country as a whole. In the United States nearly 90% of seniors say they would prefer to stay in their own homes as they age. If we started to listen maybe we could implement a program similar to Scotland’s.
The US Can Learn from Other Countries
After reading about how other countries treat their elders you might want to book a flight to Japan for the next Respect for the Aged Day. But don’t plan your trip yet. The United States cleary has a lot to learn from these other countries and cultures but we are beginning to see some progress. Anti-Ageism campaigns are fighting the prejudice and stigma that comes with age and we are seeing some shifts in cultural thinking. For example, the days of dying our grey hair are coming to an end. People are starting to embrace their natural hair color at record numbers, because we aren’t afraid to show the world that we’re getting older. Older people are a window into a breadth of knowledge, experiences, and skills that can be shared with everyone around us. Other cultures respect and take advantage of that while we’re missing out. If they can do it, why can’t we?