Culture TED Talks

What it’s like to grow old, in different parts of the world

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At TED2013, Jared Diamond shares some of his research on how different societies treat the elderly. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The world’s population is getting older. Across the globe, people are living longer thanks to improvements in healthcare, nutrition and technology. This population shift brings with it incredible possibilities, but also a new set of challenges. How do we care for our elderly?

Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better In today’s talk, Jared Diamond examines the vast differences in how societies across the globe view and treat their senior citizens. Some groups revere and respect their oldest members, while others see them as senile and incompetent, making them the butt of jokes. In some societies, children care for their parents at home, while in other cultures, children put their parents in homes where others care for them. Some cultures even see their elderly as a burden and resource drain, and opt for more violent approaches to senior care.

The Western system for elder care is far from perfect, notes Diamond, and everyone stands to learn something from how different societies care for their seniors. Watch his talk to hear what he means, and below, read some further insights on how people across the globe treat their old folks.

Who is considered old?

As Diamond mentions in his talk, the perceived value of the elderly is an important factor in determining whether seniors are respected or not. And this may be a function of who is considered old. In the United States a senior citizen is defined as someone who is 65+. But in other parts of the world, like New Guinea, anyone 50 or over is considered lapun, or an old man. As Diamond points out in his book, The World Until Yesterday, this difference has wide implications, as the two age groups tend to have a different set of physical and mental abilities.

The United Nations recently turned its attention to developing policy to support aging populations around the world — and their line for elderly begins at 60. In fact, the UN has started celebrating the International Day of Older Persons in October, which acknowledges the contributions to society made by those over the 60-line.

Where do the elderly live?

The Confucian teaching of filial piety shapes the living arrangements of elderly Chinese, Japanese and Korean people. About ¾ of elderly Japanese parents live with their adult children, a pattern replicated in Korea and China. China’s new Elderly Rights Law mandates that children visit their parents frequently, no matter how far away they live. If children don’t comply, they could face fines or jail time. “We raise our children to take care of us when we get old,” one Chinese senior citizen told the BBC.

But of course, it doesn’t take Confucian ideals to place value on spending time with the elderly. Article 207 of the French Civil Code, which was passed in 2004, requires that adult children “keep in touch” with their elderly parents. The law was passed, according to a recent article in The Week, in response to a study that showed a high rate of elderly suicides in France, and to a heat wave in which 15,000 mostly elderly people died,

In India and Nepal, the tradition has long been: a newlywed couple moves in with the groom’s family, in what’s called a patrilocal living arrangement. But shifting economic forces are reshaping residence patterns, according to the University of Maryland’s India Human Development Survey. As parts of the country urbanize, children are moving hundreds of miles away from their parents. The Indian and Nepalese governments are addressing this by developing state-run elderly care programs.

What words describe the elderly?

A culture’s respect for the elderly is often reflected in its language. Honorific suffixes like –ji in Hindi enable speakers to add an extra level of respect to important people — like Mahatma Gandhi, who is often referred to as Gandhiji. According to Wikipedia, mzee in Kiswahili — spoken in many parts of Africa — is a term used by younger speakers to communicate a high level of respect for elders. And as this report reveals, the Hawaiian word kūpuna means elders, with the added connotation of knowledge, experience and expertise.

And then there’s the suffix –san in Japanese, which is often used with elders, reveals the nation’s deep veneration for the old. The country regularly holds Respect for the Aged Day, with the media running special features that profile the oldest Japanese citizens. The Japanese also see a person’s 60th birthday as a huge event. Kankrei, as the celebration is called, marks a rite of passage into old age.

What special foods can the elderly eat?

Around the world, a number of traditional societies reserve certain foods for the elderly, Diamond reveals in his book. In Nebraska, only senior members of the Omaha Indians eat bone marrow — they believe that if young men do so, they will sprain an ankle. Similarly, the Iban of Borneo advise that only old men eat venison because, if the young taste it, it could make them timid. In Siberia, the Chukchi believe that reindeer milk will make young men impotent and young women flat-chested, so it’s reserved only for older people.

The group with the strongest food taboos: the Arunta Aboriginies, who live near Ayers Rock in Australia. Eating certain foods can lead to a “series of dire consequences for young people,” as Diamond notes in The World Until Yesterday. The Arunta believe that eating parrots will create a hollow in a young man’s head, and a hole will grow in the chin. If young Arunta men eat wildcat, they will develop painful and smelly sores on their head and neck. According to societal belief, young women who eat kangaroo tails will age prematurely … and go bald. Meanwhile, quail consumption will lead to stunted breast development, and conversely, eating brown hawks will lead the breasts to swell and burst, without even producing milk.

Do the elderly have special powers?

As Diamond mentions in his talk, many elders are respected because of highly specialized skills and knowledge. For example, Hawaiian grandmothers are revered for their unique knowledge and skill at creating ornate leis and feather accessories. Similarly, since an elderly woman in New Guinea was the only person alive who witnessed a devastating typhoon, her people looked to her for guidance on which plants are safe to eat if another disaster were to strike. Even Western societies revere the experience associated with age — the average age for a US President is 54; the average age for a Supreme Court justice is 53.

But certain societies take this a step further and attribute magical powers to the elderly. The Huaorani people of Ecuador believe that elderly shamans, called mengatoi, are endowed with magical powers, according to this Thinkquest article. This society believes that shamans can transform into jaguars. These elderly healers sit with the infirm to channel their animal spirits a cure for disease.

And what does the end of life look like?

End-of-life decisions vary drastically across cultures. Some societies do everything possible to keep their elderly alive. Other groups, however, see old and frail members as a burden, and thus take steps to end their lives. In his talk, Diamond notes that eldercide typically happens in communities that are either nomadic, or that live in harsh climates with limited resources.

According to a study in American Ethnologist, the Chukchi of Siberia practice voluntary death, in which an old person requests to die at the hand of a close relative when they are no longer in good health. And in The World Since Yesterday, Diamond notes that the Crow Indians in the US and Norse tribes in Scandinavia follow similar practices — the elderly put themselves in an impossible situation, like setting out to sea on a solo voyage. Finally, the Ache of Paraguay let their men wander off to die on the “white man’s road,” and — perhaps shockingly to some — they kill elderly women by breaking their necks.

On the flip side, the curious Greek island of Ikaria seems to have life-extending magic in its soil, notes The New York Times. Residents of this small Mediterranean island are four times more likely than their American counterparts to live to 90, and they live on average 8 to 10 years longer after being diagnosed with cancer or cardiovascular disease. Its residents don’t rush through life: they stay up late, eating Kalamata olives, drinking mountain tea and swimming in the crystal-clear water. The answer to this island’s longevity probably lies in its eating patterns and relaxed lifestyle, but nobody can definitively explain the magic behind this island of centenarians.

What are the traditions surrounding old age in your culture?