The Cultural History of Aging
Think back a few years. Okay, perhaps a
lot of years? Remember History class in grade school, High School,
and maybe even college? Did you enjoy it? Did you retain any of that
knowledge? (Did you talk about geezers?) Ancient Egypt offered
fascinating imagery with the Pyramids, the Pharaoh’s, and all those
legends of Tombs and Mummies. Then mix in Amun-Ra, Osiris, and
Anubis, add some Hollywood luster and you have quite a story. And
back to those elaborate and ornate tombs. Beliefs in the afterlife
dramatically affected the lives of the leaders, the people, and the
next generation. And it affected how people looked upon their
elders, the old folks, their aging parents and grand parents.
At the risk of stating the obvious: Since the dawn of
time, we humans have aged. We could be called geezers.Yes, hard to
believe, but there it is. Yet throughout history, and in different
corners of the world, getting older and aging varies tremendously.
The value of older folks in the family, neighborhood, and community
has been changing, and still is. And culturally, the aged are seen
differently compared to other age groups at times.
Culturally, growing up in different centuries, in different parts
of the world, with differing religious, community, and moral codes
dramatically affected the view of the elderly. Old people were
treated with ultimate respect and honor on the one hard. And the
elderly seniors were, and sometimes are, treated as drains on
societies and resources in others. Consider early America in the
1700's. The eldest members of society were the leaders, the founding
fathers, the wisest people in the land. Ben Franklin and Thomas
Jefferson were referred to as "Elder Statesmen" in their later years
of life. While that honor and respect remain for some, how many
"Senior Citizens" today live quietly alone, isolated, and are
ignored or forgotten in this fast-paced modern world?
Native American Indian tribal cultures look to their elders for
their experience and wisdom. Aging and getting older demonstrate
greater life experiences and knowledge, bringing value to the
community. The cultural history, knowledge, and shared beliefs of
the Native Americans are rooted in generations of elders. That
wisdom is passed down from father to son, over and over. One of the
roles of the oldest generation is to preserve that heritage. To
exemplify it. And to pass it along to younger generations.
What does it mean when a group of people at a place or time are
referred to as having a unique culture? "Cul·ture. /ˈkəlCHər/ The customary
beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious,
or social group." ~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary. In short. A
group. A group of people that differs from other groups of people.
While the definition is open to varying definitions, practically
speaking, it's a chance to learn from others. Much like our
ancestors, when you and I live within a general, or clearly defined
culture, we absorb and accept their cultural norms. This includes
their norms and views of the aging geezers in their community and
nation. Or they don't. Let face it, every group has their rebels.
Those who push back from the shared norms and values. Could you be a
rebel today, if you're in your 60's or 70's and choose to embrace
the geezer within?
Ancient History and Aging Seniors
Where you were born in the ancient world affected how you were
viewed in old age.
Egyptian sons were expected to care for their elderly parents as
they aged. They were expected, indeed, obligated, to see to the
health and well being of their fathers. That obligation to their
aging parents extended beyond death, to the maintenance and care of
their tombs as well. Imagine how different our world would be if we
extended that same level of care to our elders. And imagine how you
would feel as you get older, if your sons, daughters, and extended
family members looked at you that way? In past cultures and past
times, treatment of grandfathers, fathers, grandmothers, and mothers
may have been significantly different. Honored and respected.
Aging in ancient China, included a similar respect for older
people. Being in the eldest generation in a family was a point of
pride. Growing old was a sign of wisdom and value. The elderly
people in the family or village, were sought after for their advice
and direction. To be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in your
community, was a position of great honor and prestige. A lifetime of
experience was considered a blessing. It was also considered of
great benefit, one that could be relied upon when challenges or
decisions were needed.
In the land of Greece in the ancient world, youth and strength were
important and valued. Consider the origin of the Olympia Games. This
was a celebration of physical prowess, and the celebration of a
strong, viral, magnificent youthful body. Growing old in Greece held
the polar opposite position to youth. Becoming slower, less agile,
and being unable to demonstrate the strong physical attributes of
the young, the old people were viewed at times as non-contributors
to society. And yet there were exceptions. Those with prestige or
power, retired military officers, and those with higher position and
status often retained that status into their later years of life.
In ancient nearby Sparta, the people were viewed as mighty
warriors. In a culture dominated by their power in battle, strong,
courageous man were the standard. They were the yardstick by which
all else was measured. Youth were expected to follow the young and
middle aged men into military service. And retiring in that culture
included defining differences based on your contributions to the
nation over your lifetime. If you were an honored warrior, you
retired with that status of rank you achieved in battle. If you did
not follow the warrior path, you risked an old age of neglect and
Geographically Emphasis on the Elderly
Both culturally and historically, people have often had different
view of their elders geographically.
Notice how grouping of people create a unique culture. And where
they are located geographically also affect that culture. The
ancient civilizations, by contrast today, often lived in close-knit
societies. The dramatic increase in transportation, speed, and
global communication of the past 150 years was not part of much of
the world's cultural and historical development. Consider ancient
Greece. Transportation was primarily by walking, by horseback, or by
boat. Greece was a respected center for learning and expansion of
knowledge. A world power. At the time of Socrates, the city-state of
Athens had an estimated population of 200,000 or so Greeks, plus a
large number of slaves. Comparatively, the top 150 cities in the
world today have populations exceeding 2.9 million people each,
reaching as high at 38 million plus in Tokyo. Imagine how living in
a place with 200,000 plus people would affect your daily life, your
family life, and your aging elder years. Now imagine how that may
compare, or be dramatically different, in a city with a population
190 times larger.
And each continent has it's own unique story of human development.
Writings, carvings, paintings, and archeological records help us
understand others from the past. Family life, including respect for
elders and the oldest members of the community crossed these
boundaries. Consider what is known of tribal life in Africa over the
centuries. Small, closely related extended family units, that grew
and expanded. To the far north, similar family clan patterns were
necessary in the lands of the Vikings and Norsemen. And tribal
groups flourished in Asia, South America, and North America. Beyond
the extended families, they often grew to larger social groups,
sharing values and protection from other tribes, enemies, and the
elements of nature. Those common needs brought them together. And
within each tribal group, the leaders were often the oldest, the
wisest, the most respected in the village or community.
Geographically, the line starts from a world population 10,000
years ago, with a very roughly estimated 1,000,000 to 5,000,000
people. Today, all those people spread across seven continents would
fit in Atlanta, Georgia. Wow. Stop to ponder that for a moment.
Clearly population density has much to do with family and community
life. Birth, childhood, education, young adulthood, starting and
growing a family, and ultimately growing older and becoming the
"geezer" in the family and society may have been significantly
different than our 21st century. Yet, patterns of great respect
remain in the world today.
If you have had the experience, joy, and learning that comes from
modern travel, you know we are the same the world over, and we are
different the world over. Yes. It's both. It is important to
recognize how geography is another part of the elements of culture
and history. Because we group together as people, sharing our lives,
our values, and our beliefs, we congregate by location too. A clear
example is the country of Japan. Shared values. And modern Japan,
with the largest city in the world, celebrates Keiro-no-Hi on the third Monday of September
each year. Also known as "Respect for the Aged Day", it is a living
demonstration of how older folks, senior citizens, the aged, the
geezers are viewed. With thanks, respect, and adoration.
Modern Norms and Views of Aging
What is is like to be old today? What exactly is a Senior Citizen?
In this 21st century, there is arguably a cultural shift toward how
older people, seniors, the elderly, and "geezers" are viewed. We
live in a vibrant youth culture more and more each day. Consider the
1976 Science Fiction film, Logan's Run. It includes the premise that
everyone must die at a specific age, to make room for the limited
resources for the next generation. Yes, it was Sci-Fi in the 1970's.
What affect have other Sci-Fi films had, that shift thoughts and
ideas in the world? It's easy to dismiss their views of aging as
dystopian, something that will never happen. It would be easier to
dismiss if the subject of euthanasia was unknown to our vocabulary.
Euthanasia is a topic of discussion in medical circles, and in
parliaments and congresses around the world today. If facing
deteriorating medical debilitation, especially among the elder, if
may be seen as a reasonable solution. While it has been with us
throughout history, advances in technology may be outpacing the
moral, ethical, and faith discussions underway.
Yet there are many more reasons to look to the future expectantly.
Knowledge and learning have grown exponentially. The elementary
grade student today has a wider breath of knowledge, than many of
the adults through the first 9000 years of humanity on earth.
"Knowledge is power". ~ Francis Bacon. Assuming that is true,
the future of older generations is bright, with more resources,
understanding, and tools to live a full, purposeful life in their
later years. Those same options of travel mentioned earlier,
combined with diet and exercise disciplines, and medical
breakthroughs make this one of the most vibrant times in history to
live to a ripe old age. An old age filled with gusty. With a love of
life. Bringing value, wisdom, and joy to others. Embrace it! Embrace
the geezer within you!
How Do You and I Fit in Today?
It's starts with you. You thoughts and ideas. Then your actions.
It's that word again. Embrace. It's more than accepting your fate.
"I'm old." "I'm unable to do that anymore." "I'll just sit here and
watch." Embracing your aging years can be whatever you choose.
Yes, within reason and limitations. Be encouraged by the likes of
Katherine Beiers, who at 85 years old, ran and completed the Boston
Marathon in 2018. Or by George H. W. Bush, who celebrated his
90th birthday by skydiving, a lifelong passion.
accept or support (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and
As the saying goes: "So. What are you going to do about it?"
You have years, and decades of life experiences, wisdom, and
knowledge. Today may be a good day to day-dream. To consider. To
talk with your spouse, your kids, your friends. Go back to that word
"brainstorming". No limits. Let your mind expand and return to your
youth of "what if", rather than "no, I can't". That part can come
later. Isn't it amazing how many times you have said, or heard your
contemporaries say: "I may be ______ years old, but I still
think like I'm 23 years old". That's a blessing to be thankful
for, and to embrace. Grant yourself a time-out from life to dream.
Without limits. Over the years you've learned about balance and
consequences. There is a time and place for those here too, just not
Some questions to consider and get started:
1) What do I love doing?
Passionately? What else? And what else?
2) Where do I want to go?
Specifically? To travel? To visit? To live?
3) Who do I want to share that
experience with? Now? Additionally?
Now you have the start. Wait a day or two. Look at your list again.
Add to it. Give yourself the freedom to dream. Wait another day or
two. Now start to look at your list with the lens of reality. If you
passionately love driving fast and always wanted to drive in the
Indianapolis 500, you may have to modify that dream. It's those
limitations. You could perhaps take part in the Indy Racing Experience Driving Program. Yes,
there really are such things in life. You would love to travel to
France from the Midwest United States? If that's beyond the budget
at the moment, consider a trip to Ottawa Canada. This could be a
great introduction to a world different from your day to day
routine. Find the "yes" within your passions! Embrace the geezer
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