How Different Societies Treat the Elderly
Plain Truth Magazine
May 1980
Volume: Vol 45, No.5
Issue: ISSN 0032-0420
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How Different Societies Treat the Elderly
Clayton D Steep  

Why is it that societies which know the least about the Bible most often treat their elderly better than those which claim to know most about the Bible?

   "I sat up all night. I didn't close my eyes. I couldn't sleep," Mattie complained. "A woman in another cell was yelling all night, and I couldn't sleep because I was ashamed of being there."
   This was Mattie's first night in jail. She had been arrested for stealing.

It Happened in America

   Con artists earlier had robbed Mattie of her meager savings. Inflation, rent, utility and medical bills and hunger had gotten the best of her. To survive she took $15.04 worth of desperately needed groceries from a supermarket. That's what landed her in a Texas jail.
   Mattie is 91. As she was released she said in her scratchy, fading voice that her one night in jail was the last straw in a long life of trouble. "I just pray that God will close my eyes and take me out of this world."
   Isolated, destitute, hungry.
   No children, grandchildren or relatives offering help.
   A victim of crime, ill health, inflation, loneliness. For Mattie and for many other elderly people, old age has been turned into a heavy burden, a distressing ordeal. It should not be.
   It is not always that way in the West. And among some peoples and cultures, especially those in the Third World, the elderly have traditionally occupied a position of respect, as reflected in the following quotes. Even in many of these areas, however, the situation is being, or may already have been, altered due to political changes and the influence of Western culture.

A Look at Other Societies

   Now see the contrast in other societies.
   The Bantu Tiriki of Kenya: "... right up until adolescence, grandparents and other old people take a dominant role in the informal instruction of children... Grandchildren in their turn come to view grandparents not only as very kind and pleasant people, but as the storytellers and tutors of worldly wisdom, and, most important, as the people they can depend on to help most in times of real trouble or distress" (Sangree, Peoples of Africa).
   The Mbuti Pygmies: "... older people always receive respect as such" (Turnbull, Peoples of Africa).
   The Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert: "Both the father and mother expect and receive respect and obedience from their children... As long as the father lives, he is the head of the family... Kung families are responsible for dependents. Thus old, dependent parents are unfailingly supported by their offspring" (Marshall, Peoples of Africa).
   The Chagga in Tanzania: "... caring for and being cared for is part of life from beginning to end" (Kessler, Human Behavior).
   The Aborigines of Australia: "The aborigines everywhere and on all occasions pay great respect to old persons" (Thomas Petrie, Reminiscences of Early Queensland).
   The Peasant People of Yugoslavia. "While children may marry and leave the parental home, they seldom go very far and almost always one of the offspring remains at home to care for the aging parents" (Kessler, Human Behavior).
   An Arab student in Lebanon: " 'There is no greater disgrace than to abandon the old"' (The Family).
   The Bedouin: "Among the Bedouin, young men are expected to defer to the older generation at all times..." (ibid).
   The Rajput of India: "Rajput women must cover their heads with their saris when an elder enters the room" (ibid).
   Immigrants and minorities in the United States: "Similarly, students of immigrants point to the value of the extended family (or clan) in providing day care for children and ministering to the health needs of the elderly. Indeed, there are proportionately few blacks and Puerto Ricans in nursing homes" (Current, April, 1977).
   Japan: "The Japanese consider it their natural duty to care for and support an ill or feeble parent; throughout the Orient, to neglect a parent or to leave a parent in the care of strangers is to disgrace the family name" (The Adult Years).
   China: "Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang wrote a few decades ago: 'How can one be thought wise unless one is thought to be old?... there is no shame attached to the circumstance of one's being served by his children in the sunset of one's life... The symphony of life should end with a grand finale of peace and serenity and material comfort and spiritual contentment, and not with the crash of a broken drum or cracked cymbals' " (The Adult Years).
   The affluent Western world has a lot to learn!

Where the West Went Wrong

   Western culture today is youth oriented. The emphasis in entertainment, advertising, lifestyle, clothing and cosmetics is upon being young. As one's years advance individuals make special efforts to look and act like young adults. Old age is looked upon negatively.
   Age is the crowning culmination of life, the golden years. It should be looked upon with honor, respect, even awe. It should be an experience made pleasant by the warm attention and support of family members, especially children and grandchildren.
   Today rapid technological and industrial changes have revolutionized society and family. Before the Industrial Revolution significant inventions and discoveries were infrequent. Life followed a fairly predictable pattern. Most people were generally content to maintain ties to the family circle, which in turn was tied to the land. The extended family unit was anchored to a geographical area babies, children, parents, grandparents, relatives, all together. Witnessed by all was the full cycle of life consisting of its various ages: babyhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and finally old age.
   The explosion of technology brought rapid economic changes, a shift from a rural to an urban society. Industry and money-making opportunities attracted young people to cities. Improvements in modes of transportation made it easier to move great distances from other family members.
   Rampant divorce, remarriage and alternatives to marriage have split the beleaguered family unit. To a lot of children grandmother is now a far-away voice on a telephone rather than a present and real influence in their lives.
   In a culture that did not change quickly life had a sense of continuity. The wisdom of the older generation had value to the younger generations because it still applied to the experiences in life. But technology produced such rapid changes in lifestyle that the experiences of one generation appear old fashioned to the next.
   Further adding to the problems of many elderly people is the fact that they have grown up in one mode of life, on a farm, for example. When they move to a strange city, they fail to fit into the new environment.
   Today's cities are not places where a person can easily hold on to personal and cultural history. Instead, one feels compelled to conform, to blend into the crowd. Personal identity is threatened, when not totally lost. After a while people begin to wonder who they are and where their roots are. This is especially hard on older people who are suddenly called on to revise the habits of a lifetime in order to adapt to new ways of life.

Now, Add New Problems in Western World

   The psychological and/or cultural stresses of the elderly are made worse by a number of other problems that are a very real part of existence.
   A lifetime of improper diet and injurious health habits has given many people poor health by the time they reach their latter years. The younger generation fears being burdened with astronomical medical bills or the daily responsibility of having to care for an aged invalid.
"A diligent, wage-earning, productive worker in one day's time, at age 65, too often has become a non wage-earning dependent-suddenly old, cast out of the working community."
   Many elderly who are physically able to live independently are prime targets for muggers and criminals. The aged must constantly be wary of where they walk, or the talkative stranger, or the person at the door.
   Physical danger is not limited to criminal activity. A new danger is "parent abuse." In England it is called "gram-slamming." In growing numbers cases are surfacing of teenagers or adults physically or psychologically abusing elderly parents or grandparents that they are unprepared to cope with. Abuse may range from beatings to heavy doses of sedatives. It is estimated that of elderly people living with family members, 10 percent have been or are being abused.
   The technology and industry based system with its built-in inflation inflicts yet another hardship upon the older generation: economic privation. The real value of small pensions or other fixed income, as well as savings, is constantly being gnawed away by inflation. The price of food, rent, transportation and medical care steadily mounts. The value of money shrinks. And the older become poorer.
   It is in the industrialized, money oriented cultures that the custom of retiring older people from the working force is most abrupt and traumatic. A diligent, wage-earning, productive worker in one day's time, at age 65, too often has become a non wage earning dependent suddenly old, cast out of the working community.

Solving the Problems

   The Law of God is summed up in the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment strikes directly at the root of problems the elderly face: the attitude of the younger generations toward the older generation. The fifth commandment requires of each of us, "Honor thy father and thy mother..." (Exodus 20:12).
   That's where solving the problem must begin a change of attitude. The younger generations can begin to show some genuine honor and kindness and care.
   Your Bible shows how elders should be respected, the place they ought to occupy in a society organized God's way. Gray hair is to be regarded as a "crown of glory" (Proverbs 16:31; 20:29). Younger people are to rise up in the presence of the aged (Leviticus 19:32). Their advice and counsel is to be sought and heeded (Proverbs 23:22-23). The aged are to be the wisest members of society. They are to teach the young the right way to live (Job 32:7; Titus 2:2-5).
   The Western world is backwards. It has the older generation dependent upon the younger generations. God's way is for the younger generations to be dependent for wisdom upon the older generation (Proverbs 13:22; I Corinthians 12:14)!
   The basis of a stable society is a strong, extended family circle anchored to the family property and investments. The world is learning the hard way that once a society cuts its ties with the land and residential property, it sets itself adrift. Notice how the fifth commandment in its entirety makes mention of the land in connection with sound family relations: "Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."
   How so?
   Respecting and heeding the wisdom of the aged makes it possible to avoid many mistakes, thus promoting a longer and happier life. The apostle Paul, in repeating the commandment, added the thought "that it may be well with you" (Ephesians 6:3).

What Tomorrow's World Will Be Like

   When Jesus returns to the earth to save this generation from its folly and to set up God's Government, society will be structured to conform to His way.
   It will be the way that produces respect and harmony among people. Technology will benefit family life, not destroy it, because God's society will control technology, not be controlled by it. Zechariah 8:4-5 describes that happy time: "Old men and women shall sit once more in the open spaces of Jerusalem, the Lord of hosts declares, each with staff in hand, so old are they; and the open spaces shall be full of boys and girls playing there" (Moffatt translation).
   The very young and the very old brought together. What a wonderful world tomorrow!

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Plain Truth MagazineMay 1980Vol 45, No.5ISSN 0032-0420