Aging Around the World: United States

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.

CULTURAL SNAPSHOTS OF AGING

Much of the Korean regard for aging is rooted in the principle that one must respect one’s parents and fulfill one’s duty to care for the aging members of the family. A big celebration marks an individual’s 60th and 70th birthdays. The hwan-gap, or 60th birthday, is when children celebrate their parents’ passage into old age. That age is reason for celebration in part because many of their ancestors would not have survived past the age of 60 without the advances of modern medicine. A similar large family celebration is held for the 70th birthday, known as kohCui (“old and rare”).

Is this celebratory approach to aging also present in the U.S.?

The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

UNITED STATES

WAW-us-blogpostThe tree-lined streets of Hogewey, just outside Amsterdam, has shops, restaurants, a movie theater and a hairdresser. But Hogewey is not a real village; it’s a nursing home.

The supermarket cashier, the restaurant manager—all are staff who work incognito and are specially trained to care for people with dementia. Most of the residents think it’s a real village.

Before Hogeway, there was Towsley Village Memory Care Center in Chelsea, Michigan, home to 100 dementia patients living in four distinct neighborhoods, complete with 50s-style coffee shops.

The U.S. is characterized by both compassionate energy for maintaining the dignity of older citizens, and also by a mania for looking youthful; the U.S. also holds the dichotomy of the elderly as quaint relics or as vital volunteers and workers, often placing them into three basic categories:

  • Those who are no longer fully productive economically, but are physically and mentally able to meet their daily needs
  • Those who are functionally dependent, require long-term care, and are regarded as social burdens (and might be treated negatively as a result)
  • Those who continue to participate actively in the economy and social system through farming or self-employment, care of grandchildren, or household maintenance, while younger adults work outside the home

Contrast this compassionate approach to aging in the U.S. and elsewhere, with our parallel national obsession with remaining youthful. In this culture, we consider asking someone’s age to be a high insult (followed closely by asking about salary). Teenagers lie about their age to be able to join the military or buy beer. Actresses lie about their age as an act not of vanity but of survival in that industry.

How can we reconcile our plastic surgery-crazed culture with this celebratory, compassionate one that reveres old age? Perhaps by focusing on what’s good about older people:

Older workers are more reliable and have a stronger work ethic than younger workers. They also take fewer sick days.

Native American elders are expected to pass down their knowledge and teach us how to think about the ends of our lives, moving us from fear to acceptance and celebration of death as a fact of life.

Some people make history in their later life, like American primitivist painter Anna Mary “Grandma” Moses, who took up painting at age 75 when arthritis made embroidery too difficult. One of her paintings sold for $1.2 million in 2006. And Mary Harris “Mother” Jones hit her stride as a workers’ rights activist when she was in her 60s, earning her the title of “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Understand the U.S. obsession with youthful appearance for what it is: An urge toward relevancy, and give us instead, the wisdom, experience, and trailblazer spirit of our elders.

What does the Council on Aging for Henderson County do that reflects the values of our country around aging? We celebrate aging in place through maintaining vibrant programming at the Sammy Williams Center, through going the extra mile for our clients, and by tapping into a talent pool of older adults as indispensable volunteers and staff.

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