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How do other cultures care for their elderly?

By: Julie Ann Soukoulis
April 6, 2018

Celebrate aging and respect your elders!

Human aging is affected as much by biology as it is a cultural environment. Perspectives are formed largely by the greater perspectives around us. Our biology is also affected by how we think about what our bodies are doing.

This is why it is important to understand just how differently other cultures approach the issue, and how effective for enhanced health and well-being many similarly compassionate approaches to caring for the elderly actually are.

From the outside looking in

When someone who has been raised in a more compassionate culture peers into our American approach to the elderly - what they see might make you uncomfortable. They see a culture celebrating youth with anti-aging potions and age-prevention obsessions. It is visible in our movie themes, television commercials and roadside billboards.

Our youth worship emerges in our radio programs and late night infomercials. This youth-glorifying focus communicates a screaming fear of and negative judgement about growing old, and dying.

They also see that we have created large medical warehouses to send our aging population into. And though many have softened and become more home-like and community-oriented than in the past - the truth is that few elders enter into aging facilities, hospitals or senior living centers with their family and friends going along with them.

~And those who did not live a life of means - often can’t afford these more comfortable places. Aging is often met in Western culture with shame and a need to try to hide the fact that aging is happening. Think hair dye and wrinkle creams. Feel the sinking feeling of being viewed as though you are losing your value.

Ph.D. Psychologist Erik Erickson has argued that our Western fear of aging prevents us from fully living our lives. “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life,” he writes.

Arianna Huffington reports in her book, “On Becoming Fearless,” “Ten years ago I visited the monastery of Tharri on the island of Rhodes with my children. There, as in all of Greece, abbots are addressed by everyone as ‘Geronda,’ which means ‘old man.’ Abbesses are called ‘Gerondissa.’ Not exactly terms of endearment in my adopted home. The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America.”

This Western cultural obsession about ignoring the aging as well as the importance of participating in the family dying process doesn’t exist in Greece. In Greece, within Greek-American culture, old age is honored and celebrated and respect for elders remains central to the systems and processes of the family.

Native American elders use storytelling to pass down knowledge

Although our attitudes about death in contemporary American culture are largely characterized by fear, Native American cultures traditionally and overwhelmingly accept death as a fact of life.

There are over 500 Native nations in America. Each has its own perspectives, traditions and attitudes toward the aging process and elderly care. In most tribal communities, elders are respected for both wisdom and life experiences and remain with family members until death.

 According to the University of Missouri, Kansas City, most Native American nations embrace traditions that require elders to pass their learnings from life back to their children and children’s children.

Korean elders are highly respected

Korean people hold their regard for aging from roots in the Confucian principle of filial piety. This fundamental value dictates that one must respect one’s parents (Chinese Confucianism has a long history in Korea).

The younger members of the family have a duty to care for the aging members. Outside the family unit, Koreans socialize with respect and deference offered to both older individuals and authority figures.

Confucius wrote in Analects. “A superior man is devoted to the fundamental. When the root is firmly established, the moral law will grow. Filial piety and brotherly respect are the root of humanity.”

Korean’s also have a big celebration to mark an elder’s 60th and 70th birthdays. The hwan-gap, or 60th birthday, celebrates a joyful time for children to celebrate their parents’ passage into old age. This age is a reason for celebration partly because many ancestors would not have survived past 60 without the advances of modern medicine. A family celebration is also held for the 70th birthday, known as kohCui (“old and rare”).

Chinese children care for their parents in old age

Chinese families also traditionally view filial piety and respect for one’s elders as the highest virtue. Again this is derived from the Confucian tradition. Although westernization 

lessens the power of traditional values, in most urban and rural communities, adult children still care for their parents in old age.

“Placing your parents in retirement homes will see you labeled as uncaring or a bad son,” Beijing resident Zhou Rui told “To abandon one’s family is considered deeply dishonorable.”

In India, elders are the head of the family

Most Indians live in joint family homes. The elders act as the head of the household. Elders are supported by the younger members of the family and they, in turn, play a core role in raising the grandchildren.

“Advice is always sought from them on a range of issues, from investment of family money to nitty-gritties of traditional wedding rituals and intra-family conflicts. And this is not just passive advice; their word is final in settling disputes,” Achyut Bihani wrote in Slate. “The elderly are often the most religious and charitable members of the family.”

In the African-American community, Death is an opportunity to celebrate life

In African-American culture, death is part of the “natural rhythm of life.” This reduces the cultural fear around aging. This is why Karen H. Meyers writes in The Truth About Death and Dying, “African-American funerals tend to be life-affirming and to have a celebratory air intermingled with the sorrow.”

The moral to this story:

Make sure you really, deeply, clearly understand what your elder wants and needs in order to gracefully approach death with both dignity and respect intact.

Looking for resources on how to approach these delicate conversations? The Compose Your Life Song public education program from Home Instead Senior Care offers free resources that encourage seniors and their families to talk about plans and wishes for their final years, while also exploring options for end-of-life care, finances, insurance and funeral planning. You can find these resources at

Julie Ann Soukoulis is the owner of Home Instead Senior care office in Rohnert Park, mother of two and passionate about healthy living at all ages. Having cared for her own two parents, she understands your struggles and aims, through her website, to educate and encourage seniors & caregivers. Have a caregiving or aging concern? She’s love to hear from you at 586-1516 anytime.