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.

white haired elderly woman

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?

elderly women with red and yellow sombrero

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 embra

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.

older woman in china

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 servitude.

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.

peru smiling grandmother

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.

older couple dancing trenchcoat hat

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.

em·brace    /əmˈbrās/
accept or support (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and enthusiastically.

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 yet.

confident active white haired baby boomer

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 it!


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