Aging Across Cultures

By Jo Lynn Orr

aging14In many traditional cultures, those few who survive to old age are treated with great deference. This village elder in the Bolivian Andes was the keeper of more than a century of communal lore.Elderly citizens seem to have faded into the background of America's youth-obsessed society. But is this a worldwide phenomenon? UAB anthropologist Christopher Taylor, Ph.D., thinks not. "Generally speaking, many other cultures treat their elderly with greater deference," he says. "In many places, older citizens are admired for having lived to a ripe old age, because that means they possess knowledge and skills conducive to survival." Traditional cultures also honor the elderly as possessors of wisdom that can only come with advanced years. One reason this is so, Taylor points out, is because "few people in non-Western cultures actually arrive at old age."

With advances in medical care and public health practice, it's become common for people in industrialized Western countries to reach age 65 and beyond. So most industrialized nations have responded by developing "social safety nets to assist the growing numbers of elderly citizens," Taylor says. "In traditional cultures," on the other hand, "people who survive to their 70s or 80s still work in the fields or at other endeavors in a limited capacity."

Sparing the elderly from these tasks may seem like a noble gesture, but charitable deeds are not always accompanied by charitable thoughts. "I think that some people resent paying taxes to help support ‘nonproductive' members of the society," Taylor says. "Any person who is not out there working is to some extent devalued—including children, which is why our birth rate is relatively low."

aging15Doña Maria became a powerful figure in her Guatemalan village, starting a weaving business that brought international attention.And there is another factor in our ambivalence toward the aged: In a culture devoted to acquiring more and more things, people can become just another commodity. "Western culture emphasizes continued innovation and planned obsolescence," says Taylor. "When it comes to material goods, novelty sells, and I think that value is transferred throughout the culture."