Friday, September 24, 2010

West Vs. East - How Do We Treat the Elderly?

"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.


  1. Yes, it's a shame that some Chinese pensioners behave like bossy old farts instead of appreciating the kindness of their children. My favourite old Chinese guy was the widower in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, who cooked great food for his daughters and ended up marrying a woman half his age. What a great film that was.

  2. I think care for the elderly will change in the West once the balloon of baby boomers is six feet under and the the elderly are no longer the dominate age group.

  3. Your posts always get me thinking, Val. I've got a young stepdaughter (14) and I watch the way she is with the elderly and think: Crap, I'd never have treated my grandma like that. She's only been with me for a year, but respect is topping the list of life lessons!
    @Gorilla Bananas - loved that movie!
    @Bathwater - you could be very right!

  4. But what about that unique smell all old people have?

    Good post. They say families need to spend more time at the kitchen table during dinner together. I think the decline of that family bonding time and all the other things kids do these days (practices, clubs, friends, etc.) combined with the crazy traditional parental lifestyle (working, home responsibilities, travel, parenting, shuttling kids everywhere, etc.) contributes to your whole point.

  5. There's so little emphasis on 'family' here. Respect for anyone, let alone your elders, seems a foreign concept to so many young people.

  6. Timely post - yesterday my wife and I were touring "assisted living" facilities for her father who is living at home alone, becoming more isolated and has had some recent falls. These places are very nice, ensure the dignity and independence of the residents and provide a moderate level of services. The tough part will be trying to sell that to her father who is in denial of his declining ability and growing needs. We plan on having that discussion with him next week. We don't know how he will take the discussion; that generation tends to "not want to think about it" and deal with it when it comes. Not a good plan, we want him to face it while he still has some choices. It may be a tough sell.

  7. good post, I agree with everything you said on the pros and cons. In my own personal experience older generations tend to impose their old way of thinking on younger ones and thus can stop their progress, but if you have an open-minded and wise grandparents you should off course use the benefits of their guidance and advice.

  8. This post has made me feel guilty. Thanks!

  9. Great entry. I often ponder such things, and I think that the negative impact from the breakdown of the family structure in the West is profound and significant. However, I also ponder the fact that it wasn't quite the same 100+ years ago, when the West relied more on the family structure to survive. In that way, I almost see it more as a symptom of affluence, rather than culture. But even so, I think that Eastern cultural values have always emphasized familial loyalty to a slightly greater degree.

  10. Great post, you respect others and get the respect in return. Never take your parents or your children for granted. We do things for each other because we wanted to, not because the world is watching us. personally I would like to be left alone if I'm not the burden to my children.

  11. Hi, you just treat them as you would like to be treated.
    One thing is let them be as they are, as some don't like to be treated like halpless.
    Anyway, Chinese always respect their elders, this brainwashed since young.
    Interesting post, good for you.
    Best regards, lee.

  12. I've lived in the west all my life but as a person of Indian origin I've often been horrified at the attitude many people in the west have towards elderly people. This practice of sending their parents to nursing homes to be cared for by strangers, because they themselves are too busy to do the job, is very sad. At the same time, not all people in the west have that attitude. Many people do take care for their elderly parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, the practice of elderly nursing homes seems to be taking root in countries like India which is alarming.


  13. Hi! Was just talking about this yesterday. Many of our western cultures are despicable when it comes to respecting the aged. It is definitely a problem, but I wonder if we'll export our attitudes to the east?

  14. Intriguing post. I have always liked the company of older people, mostly because of the influence of my grandparent to whom I was very close. But I do despair of the way in which we treat the elderly in the UK.

  15. Balance is never easy for anything. I'm afraid I may have to make that choice myself soon with my own mother, and it isn't something I look forward to. Too much to consider, but I already know I'm leaning towards my own interests.

    An awkward topic, but you handled it well.


  16. I suppose it was easy to separate the argument into east and west---but that is a little too simple.
    I think you have to add in history, religion and governments.
    Our society has set a "retirement"/ "pension age where people are expecting to be out of the work force and have the government care for them financially. But other governments have no such provisions so people must work until they are no longer able and then rely on the graces and love of their families.
    We also have a problem where to former "male" bread winner is now female or both and there is now no one in the home to care for an elderly relative.
    There is alway a sense of duty but then again, there can be a sense of expectations.
    My parents expected that they should provide for their retirement---moved to a retirement village when their house took too much effort and into low care facility when they needed more hands on support.
    A friends Asian in laws made no provision for their advancing years, expected that their daughter should provide for them and now expect that she should return from another state to provide hands on care.
    I expect to do it all for myself---and will

  17. You're so fair, Val. I appreciate your perspective. I think a middle ground, East meets West approach would be ideal (and will never happen, or, perhaps, in Switzerland ??).

  18. You had to write this at this particular time. Today we are visiting a nursing facility for my mother-in-law who is in extreme dementia. We have wrestled with our souls over this in trying to figure out whether our lives should be fiercely dedicated to her care at the expense of our a time when we are supposed to be enjoying and planning and traveling and...

    I guess when my wife's emotional health is suffering as a dedicated care giver, it is the breaking point. Huge guilt. Huge decision. We cannot find a satisfactory answer.

  19. Wonderful post! Being raised in a country seperated from most of my family I have always yearned for that family connection. As I have gotten older and have afford the luxury of travel "home" I realize I miss that connection even more. I always thought all I ever needed was just me...I was wrong.

  20. Interesting article. I wish more people cared for the elderly with more compassion. They deserve the world, they've seen it all..

  21. Great job dear ! your post is really helpful for old age ... thankx 4 sharing
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