Changes in Traditional Perspectives on Aging

Aging: East vs. West and How We Treat the Elderly

Historically, there have been significant and well documented differences in the way Eastern and Western cultures think about and care for their elders. However, changes in age demographics combined with seismic shifts in the distribution of wealth are redefining the way people age all over the globe. Today, the industrialization and “westernization” of many Asian countries has brought them closer to an American model of retirement and old age, while Americans are shifting towards a more traditionally eastern ideal.

Traditional Western Views

Western views on aging have been largely shaped by an obsession with youth and a focus on individual success. Despite the fact that aging is an inevitable part of life, Western cultures spend a lot of time and money fighting the signs of aging and placing a disproportionate amount of value on youthfulness. This devaluing of age, combined with a drive for independent success, makes it far more likely and socially acceptable for families to send the elderly to nursing homes to live out their final years: “The pursuit of individual freedom assumes priority, resulting in a meltdown of harmony and any reasonable sense of family dependence and unity. Not only is it considered an inconvenience to take care of the elderly, the idea of living with family members in a multi-generational homes has carried a certain stigma that runs contrary to the American ideal of self-reliance.

The tendency to be dismissive of the elderly is further exacerbated by the fact that Americans construct much of their identity around their profession and how much they earn. Professor Jared Diamond describes this attitude as the “Protestant work ethic,” which makes it difficult for Americans to recognize and value the worth of those who are retired and no longer a part of the workforce. Instead of revering the elderly for their experience and wisdom, western cultures view them as a burden because they are no longer contributing in a way that is deemed “valuable.”

Traditional Eastern Views

In contrast, eastern cultures have been steeped in a history of Confucian thought and ideology that focuses on “filial piety.” This doctrine has affected all aspects of western culture. Even simple social customs reflect a hierarchy that firmly places the oldest person at the top. For example, in Asian countries, it is not only customary, but expected that you would give up your seat to an elder and greet them first when you enter a room full of people. It is considered a privilege to be in the presence of someone who has accumulated so much wisdom and Asian cultures reinforce that idea through their everyday actions.

Filial piety goes beyond gestures though, and has influenced the very socio-economic structure of the eastern world. Showing respect and reverence for the elderly is so important that it has traditionally been considered shameful not to care for family members in their old age. As a result, it is much more common and less taboo for Asian and Mediterranean cultures to live in multi-generational homes. In fact, over 65% of Japanese live with family members. In addition, more Asian families have large savings accounts because they know that, down the road, they will be expected to care for the elder members of their family. In contrast, retirees in western countries report a much higher rate of giving financial support to their grown children.

The Seeds of Change

While in the past it has been easy to draw clear distinctions between eastern and western views on aging, those boundaries are beginning to blur. As more eastern countries become industrialized and residents enjoy longer life expectancies, they are being faced with one of the consequences of prosperity and westernization: a larger aging population that needs elder care. A rise in longevity combined with a decline in birthrates has causes a significant shift in population demographics. Historically, only 3-4% of the population was made up of those 60 and older. Today’s average is 14% and a conservative prediction puts that number 25% by 2050. In China, that translates to over 178 million elderly with only 50% of that number being taken care of by family members. This is creating increased demands on both private and public sectors.

The problem of properly providing for the aging population in China is due, in part to the one-child policy that has placed the burden of care squarely on the shoulders of a single child. To further aggravate the problem, many eastern countries are still in the process of establishing a national health care safety net. Essentially, governments are trying to play catch-up when it comes to providing enough beds, nursing homes, and other essential medical care to an aging population that continues to grow at an exponential rate.

An influx of wealth into eastern cultures has also contributed to the changing the socioeconomic landscape and a shift away from family-centric thinking. The median income in many Asian countries has multiplied many times over during the past decade. China saw the most dramatic increase of 1557% during a five year period from 2005-2010. This has created a new distribution of wealth and power that is now concentrated among the young. Along with new wealth and success, “the rapid pace of development” has caused the “diffusion of more individualistic ‘western values.'” While, a large portion of people are still affected by traditions that include a hierarchy based on age, the necessity to respect elders, and conformity to social norms, an ever increasing portion of younger generations are shying away from traditions that dictated that children should care for their parents. By comparison, in western countries, wealth is concentrated among the older population, especially as younger generations continue to deal with the great recession and struggle to get a financial footing.

Unfortunately, retirement for seniors in eastern countries is a far cry from what we might envision as the “golden years.” Most seniors in Asian countries are encountering a harsh reality filled with poverty once they hit retirement age. Much of their financial burden comes from the fact that the retirement age in many Asian countries is relatively low compared to the United States: “In Hong Kong, half of respondents report that they retired while still in their fifties.” Instead of being able to choose their retirement date, they are often forced to retire early and live off of a significantly diminished income. The problem is so severe that unions in Malaysia are now lobbying government and employers to raise retirement ages in order to spare older workers the hardship of overly long retirement.

With early retirements and longer life expectancies, many among the aging population simply can’t afford to support themselves. For those who had operated under the assumption that their children would be financially supporting them in their later years, they are finding themselves facing a weakened family support system and a government and private sector that is not yet fully developed enough to meet their changing needs. Consequently, rates of depression and suicide among seniors are on the rise as they experience financial hardships and isolation: “In South Korea, the number of suicides among people ages 65 years and older more than tripled in a decade to 4,406 in 2011.”

The Future of Aging

Whereas today’s seniors in Asian countries are left to suffer through a time of transition, developers and other healthcare providers are seizing the opportunity to make a profit as China and other countries create a burgeoning market for those in need of senior housing and nursing homes. The government in Chine is resisting this cultural trend and trying to maintain a society where 90% of people live with their families, 7% visit community centers and 3% pay for private homes. American investors and developers have not been deterred by government efforts and continue to pour money into building western style retirement communities in China and other countries. After all, even if they are limited to a market of 3% of the population, in China that still equates to 39 million potential customers!

Builders and developers have also managed to carve out a new market niche in western countries based on changes in the way people are choosing to age and live out their final years. In the United States, 51 million people now live in multigenerational homes and that number is still on the rise. This represents the first time since the 1940s that multigenerational living has enjoyed popularity in the U.S. The nation’s leading builders are responding by constructing homes that are specifically meant to meet the needs of multiple generations living under one roof.

So while the elderly in Asian countries that have become more industrialized and westernized are facing increased isolation and the prospect of growing old in a nursing facility, more and more Americans are incorporating elderly family members into their households. This marks a noticeable shift in attitudes and practices among eastern and western cultures.

Amy Blitchok is a professional writer interested in researching and disseminating information about aging in place and mobility technology. She currently writes for U.S. Medical Supplies.


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  • LAAAC is managed by St. Barnabas Senior Services; Funded, in part, by Archstone Foundation.
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