Cultural perspectives of 'ageing'


Cultural perspectives can have a huge effect on our experience of getting older.

Robert Cummins

​Robert Cummins, one of our Age of Experience group members, writes about his thoughts about ageing and how it is perceived differently in different cultures.

Robert is an avid traveller and a recent trip to Zambia, and conversations with ex-pats there sparked his curiosity about the subject.

Recently I visited Zambia, where my brother and his wife have been living for over 40 years.

While I was there I got talking to one of their friends called Lyn who also immigrated to Zambia several decades ago.  Now in her early 70s, our conversation turned to ageing and the differences of how age and ageing is perceived in Zambia compared to the UK.

Lyn commented that she wouldn't like to come back to the UK because she's certain she would be 'labelled' old, whereas is Zambia she is simply 'Lyn'.

It made me think about different approaches to ageing across the world and so I started looking into other cultures and their attitudes to ageing.

Did you know:

  • In parts of Greece, people address abbots as 'Geronda' which means 'old man'. It is used as a term of endearment.
  • Native Americans' attitude towards ageing and social care for older people differs to those of the general population in the USA. For example, within Native American families the oldest members expect to pass down their learnings to the younger generation.
  • In Korea, it's customary have big celebrations around people's 60th and 70th birthdays and in Confucian, Chinese Buddhist and Taoist ethics, they teach 'filial piety' which means to respect one's parents, elders, and ancestors. In Chinese, the word characterising this shows a young man beneath an old man, the younger supporting the older.
  • In China, adult children expect to care for their parents in their old age but westernisation and the one-child policy may change the cultural expectations around this.
  • In India, it is common to live together as joint family units where elders act as the head of the household. They also play a key role in raising their grandchildren as the younger members of the family go to work and provide the financial support.
  • In ancient Rome, elderly members of society were revered (although the average life expectancy was merely 25, so someone in their 60's was quite unusual). The eldest expected to be an example to youth by virtuous living. Cicero said, "For there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that."

Having started my conversation with Lyn in Zambia, and doing this digging, I came across a 2013 research paper: The Changing Privileges and Challenges of Older People in Contemporary African Society, by Noah Abanyam, Department of Sociology, University of Mkar, Nigeria.

It states that before having regular contact with the western world, older people in African societies were highly valued and seen as having accumulated "knowledge and wisdom, which they used to settled disputes, integrate the society and educate the young." Formal education introduced by the West challenged the traditional system of caring for older people and affected how older people are perceived in society.

I think it's important to consider how older people see themselves in society.

Robert Cummins

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