"A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.” – Abraham J. Heschel
In experiencing firsthand the way in which Chinese families care for and respect the elderly, I promised myself before writing this that I would renounce, or at the very least conceal, any biases that I might harbour on this matter. Summoning Heschel’s quote admittedly was not a good start, but to be fair, conventional thinking certainly nudges many of us towards making harsh comparison between the East and West when it comes down to the issue of elderly care. While Eastern cultures place enormous value on family and the aged, often abiding by complex age hierarchies within larger families, values of the West tend to focus more around youth and individualism. The traditional Asian household is far more likely to include a grandparent, whereas nursing homes in Australia and many parts of the West are becoming increasingly overcrowded. Of course it would be obscenely simple (and not to mention slightly conceited) to condemn Western cultures for their deprived treatment and attitudes toward their seasoned citizens, so I wanted to instead focus on what the East could learn from the West.
The Confucian notion of ‘filial piety’, that is, showing respect for and deference to your elders, continues to have a strong presence in Chinese and Asian families. Being in the wise company of an elder is traditionally acknowledged as a high privilege, and although ancient myths of dead ancestors punishing disrespectful children are now shared as common jokes within Chinese families, this sort of humour suggests that ancestral reverence remains important today. The problem with such values however is outlined in what psychologist Edward Shen refers to as ‘filial stupidity’, which is the notion of filial piety becoming manipulated and exploited, giving older family members the licence to act autocratic, possessive, and “demand unhealthy deference to their authority, making choices based on shaming other family members”. The arguably distorted sense of duty to elders is believed to often result in younger family members giving up their own well-being and freedom in order to submit to tradition.
Western cultural values on the other hand encourage families to balance loyalty to the elderly with individual freedom. Unfortunately however, it is very often that the latter takes precedence over the former, resulting in a lack of harmony within a family, and eroding any sense of family reliance and closeness. In the end, it is important to note that individuals from all cultural backgrounds go to great lengths for their elderly parents and family members out of love, respect and a strong sense of duty, but there certainly is a lot we can learn from one another.