Elderly care customs in different cultures

Attitudes to the elderly, or even the age at which people are seen as elderly, vary considerably around the world.

In the USA and a large part of Western Europe, where there is a strong cultural emphasis on the individual, there is usually no expectation that an older relative will live with younger ones, although it does sometimes happen.  Indeed, in general it is seen almost as a cultural “rite of passage” that young people leave home to set up on their own in their late teens and early twenties.

So, there is a fairly well-developed system of care homes, supported living arrangements and retirement villages, particularly in the USA, and to some extent in the UK. Having said that, both countries do have large numbers of elderly people living on their own.

The further east one goes, the more the situation changes and this is much influenced by the culture of the community, where the family is seen as being more important than the individual.

In Greece, and around the Mediterranean, for example, there is a strong emphasis on the family, and it is not unusual for several generations to be living under one roof. Often it is the oldest generation that is relied on to assist with caring for the youngest, while the breadwinners work outside the home.

Veneration of ancestors is a strong tradition in many Asian and South East Asian cultures, too.

Although the requirements of modern economic life often mean that younger generations have to move considerable distances away for work, respect for the elderly remains a core principle.

In Korea, the 60th and 70th birthdays are prominent life events, which are commemorated with large-scale family parties and feasts. As in Chinese culture, the universal expectation in Korea is that roles reverse once parents age, and that it is an adult child’s duty to care for his or her parents.

Elders are considered the carriers of knowledge, tradition and wisdom in Vietnamese culture and elderly grandparents live with their families for support and care. They contribute to the household by preparing meals and caring for grandchildren. Elders are considered the head of the family and their advice is valued to the point where they are the decision makers in the household.

China’s rapid economic development has caused some problems for people keeping in touch with elderly parents, such that in 2004, a law was introduced called the Elderly Rights Law, requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents often, regardless of how far away they live.

Japan too, values respect for the elderly, and children are expected to care for their parents, although Japan’s elderly population is increasingly elderly. It is estimated that about three quarters of elderly Japanese parents live with their adult children.

Traditions of extended family living still prevail in many parts of the East, no more so than in India, where several generations still live under one roof, as it is the custom for a newly-wed couple to move in with the son’s parents. However, again economic and job requirements are beginning to change this even in India, so that the country has started to develop care homes for the elderly.  However, respect for the elderly is deeply ingrained in the country and they do remain head of the household, caring for the children when parents are at work, and being consulted on a wide range of issues including finance and marriage.