Written by Eva (Zichen) Wang
Author’s Note: I am a third-year Honours Health and Society student, minoring in Psychology. I am passionate about how society and students like myself can provide a more inclusive environment for seniors. My program provides me with a sound theoretical and practical background in understanding Canadian Health Care, especially from a social perspective. As a volunteer this year with Hamilton Aging in Community, I will offer written posts from time to time.
How are older people perceived in Asian countries?
What is it like for aging in a society with billions of people? Across the globe, vast differences arise in how societies treat and view older adults. Some may hold their highest respect for older adults owing to their wisdom and experiences while some may view the older population as burdensome to society.
East Asian countries have traditionally recognized and valued older adults – setting them on a pedestal. Certainly, Eastern cultures may show more compassion for older adults. As rooted in the Confucian belief, younger generations are encouraged to treat their elders with respect and care. Confucian values promote a positive view of aging as well as expectations for filial piety behaviours. Children are should take responsibility for caring for their older parents and visiting them frequently. “We raise our children to take care of us when we get old,” said one Chinese senior citizen. The element of ‘payback’ occurs in the process of procreation; it is believed that raising children is preparation for one’s aging. This cultural heritage still reverberates today among the Asian populations and their descendants growing up in North America.
In other eastern countries, India, for instance, it is a cultural practice for younger children to care for their older parents into old age. It is seen as a blessing from God to care for their older parents. Many may consider it as an accumulation of good karma.
In Eastern cultures, it is common that multiple generations to live together in a family household, where respect and age-based hierarchy become very important. In Vietnam, there are respectful manners which set behavior expectations (for example, at the dinner table, older adults will eat first and it is disrespectful for younger children to eat all the things they like).
Culturally speaking, respect for older adults is often reflected in its language. The suffix -san in Japanese, and -ji in Hindi suggested the level of respect for older adults revealing the nation’s deep veneration for the old.
The notion of filial piety may produce an adverse impact, especially in families where traditions are fading due to modern changes in Asian countries or due to immigration to North America. Older adults can be manipulative, acting autocratically or overriding familial decisions. This creates pressure for young people with Asian backgrounds to passively adhere to traditional practices.
Whereas people in Western countries (North American, European countries) generally tend to emphasize the good of individuals rather than the communal good. Western countries empower individuals to become active members of society and maximize their potential ability to thrive. “You often hear from people that North Americans are not as kind to elders as people from other cultures. But it’s actually a misperception,” according to an adjunct professor in SFU’s gerontology program. Both in the West and in the East, much variation within cultural groups exists. Regardless of cultural differences, rapid shifts in society and massive ideological changes are shifting attitudes and practices toward older members of society. Young and old are gaining more appreciation for competence of older people, and more older people are choosing to live separately from their families.
Interdependence has been the tradition in Asian societies. Across the world, changes in technology, proportion of women working, and increased numbers of older adults are driving the need for updating policies and services to support new kinds of interdependence among the generations.
Families of Asian background in Canada may experience stress when cultural values differ across generations. Young people from these families, like myself, who choose to study Aging and Health are in a special position to guide the development and implementation of services these families.
For further interest, please read the following:
Jacobs, L. (2013). What it’s like to grow old, in different parts of the world. Ted Blog.
Todd, D. (2016). How do East and West really treat seniors? Vancouver Sun
Venson, H.A. (2014). Elderly Caregiving in India.