Sociocultural Differences in Perspectives on Aging
The Hindu Indian cultural perspective on aging is that life is part of a great cycle in which life, death and rebirth are norms. The Hindu culture believes that if a person is good in his or her life, he or she will be reborn as something better in the next life and that if he or she is not so good, the outcome will be the opposite — the next life will be something worse (Metcalfe, Metcalfe, 2012). This is the idea of reincarnation that is a major belief in the Hindu culture. Because believers want a better life after they die, they are mindful to be respectful to others in this life — and this applies to the way in which the treat their elders. Aging is not really viewed as a lamentable process, but rather as a natural step towards the next life that is to come. Indeed, much of the Hindu cultural attitude towards life consists of this feeling of anticipation and preparation — being mindful of how one should treat others. Views towards aging are based in this belief system.
In my culture, which is Western, aging is viewed almost as an evil in the sense that it is something that is regrettable and we are sad that we even have to deal with it. Our culture really values and promotes Youth — and even older people try to dress like they are still young and get surgeries to make themselves look young even though they are obviously aging. As they get old, many of them end up in homes where professionals are paid to look after them because their families (their own children) do not want to look after them or cannot do so because of work and time constraints. Aging is not something that people look forward to in our culture, and because there is no common belief in reincarnation (or even in an afterlife, except for those who are still Christian, Muslim, etc.) there is very little desire to even think about getting old or how we might help those who age. Instead, we focus on making every moment of our youths last — which is clearly myopic, since time is ever-fleeting. Thus, there is a kind of despair in our attitude towards aging here in the West.
Another culture is the Chinese culture: their traditional Confucian belief system holds that it is especially important to respect and venerate one’s elders and ancestors. Confucianism is not so much a religion as a philosophy or way of life, and while there is a spiritual aspect to its underpinnings, one of the main tenets of the belief system is that younger persons should respect older persons (Parker, 2001). For this reason, as people age in Chinese culture, it is expected and understood that the younger family members will look after the older. In modern times, this belief and practice may not be as popular — but the basic ideas are still there in Chinese culture and these signify a stark difference to Western ideals and culture, wherein the process of aging is something that people fear — even to the point where the discussion of voluntarily ending one’s life (euthanasia) has become more popular and in some Western states is legal.
Because the Eastern cultures view time as cyclical and have a more spiritual approach to life and death (the West still has a spiritual approach in some traditional circles — but there is a materialistic culture that is mainly dominant in the West today). As a social worker, it may be helpful to review the traditional aspects of culture and society and identify those beliefs that are common among all cultures in a universal sense (and in a timeless sense). This approach to aging could impact social work by providing individuals in the West with a greater incentive to view aging with care and consideration and to think about the way in which we should show respect and appreciation for older persons and even begin to try to include them in our lives more instead of spending so much time thinking about being Young.
Metcalf, B., Metcalf, T. (2012). A Concise History of India. London: Cambridge.
Parker, J. (2001). Windows into China. Boston: Brill.
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