Aging Around the World: France

by Patti Digh, Council on Aging for Henderson County Board Member

In this series, we are exploring the norms around aging in each of the countries that will be represented at our Wine Around the World event on October 22, 2015. There are tickets left, but they’re going fast. Tickets can be purchased at our office or online here: coa.eventbrite.

Old Age is Relative

Frequently, the average life expectancy in a given region determines what age counts as “old.”

For example, in the United States, where the average life expectancy is over 78 years, people are not considered “old” until they are in their sixties or seventies.

However, in Chad the average life expectancy is less than 49 years. People in their thirties or forties are therefore already middle-aged or “old.”

These variations in people’s perceptions of who is considered elderly indicates that notions of youth and age are culturally constructed. There is thus no such thing as a universal age for being considered old. This concept of “old” is also influenced by cultural norms and stereotypes of “old” in various cultures.

Let’s journey to France to see what “old” means there, and what “rights” the elderly have there.

Elder Rights in France

WAW-France-blogpostA new Elderly Rights Law passed in China wags a finger at adult children, warning them to “never neglect or snub elderly people” and mandating that they visit their elderly parents often, regardless of how far away they live. The law includes enforcement mechanisms, too: Offspring who fail to make such trips to mom and dad face potential punishment ranging from fines to jail time.

Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. This relates back to the Protestant work ethic, which ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work — something that diminishes in old age. Anthropologist Jared Diamond, who has studied the treatment of the elderly across cultures, has said the geriatric in countries like the U.K. and U.S. live “lonely lives separated from their children and lifelong friends.” As their health deteriorates, the elderly in these cultures often move to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.

It’s difficult to imagine such an Elderly Rights Law being a legislative priority in many Western cultures. France did, however, pass a similar decree in 2004 (Article 207 of the Civil Code) requiring its citizens to keep in touch with their geriatric parents. It was only enacted following two disturbing events, though: One was the publication of statistics revealing France had the highest rate of pensioner suicides in Europe, and the other was the aftermath of a heat wave that killed 15,000 people — most of them elderly, and many of whom had been dead for weeks before they were found.

In France, the elderly receive a payment similar to Social Security, which increases according to the recipient’s income and care needs. But these insurance programs only provide financial support, and do little, if anything, to address what the Chinese call the “spiritual needs” of the old. China’s law, therefore, was intended to exert moral pressure on sons and daughters to attend to their parents — seeing retired parents, that legislation makes clear, is your job.

What does the Council on Aging Henderson County do that reflects the values of France around aging? While the Council on Aging primarily focuses on providing tangible support for the elderly — with food programs like Meals on Wheels — contact through social workers and volunteers provides the social, human connection that’s equally important.

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