Aging and Culture Research Paper

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Although  the  world  population  has been aging at an unprecedented rate, the speed of change is considerably different depending on national history and life circumstances.    The   association   between   age   and culture  can be best understood  in the light of the life span perspective and the family. Different cultural backgrounds  affect individuals’ aging experiences contemporaneously   and   cumulatively.   Family   is both  the  conveyer  and  interpreter   of  culture.  The life span  attachment  model  and  the  convoy  model emphasize  that  close relationships  accumulate  over time  and  differentially affect the  aging process  and, consequently, the physical and psychological well-being of individuals who live in different cultural milieus.

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  1. Introduction
  2. Aging and Demographics
  3. Aging, Culture, and Families
  4. Cultural Diversity and Aging
  5. Age, Culture, and Social Relations
  6. Cultural Influences on the Health of Aging People
  7. Summary and Conclusions

1. Introduction

The study of aging has a long and ancient history, with notable comments having come from historical luminaries  such  as Aristotle,  Socrates,  and  Plato.  Despite the increasingly youth-oriented  society, the modern study of aging has garnered increased attention during recent years for many reasons, not the least of which is recognition of the significantly changing world demography. This research paper first presents a brief overview of these changes. It then considers the association between  aging and culture,  noting  the role of family and  cultural   diversity  as  well  as  the  implications of both  family and  culture  for health  and  well-being among the elderly. The research paper closes with a consideration of how culture  shapes aging and health  in the  United States as well as around the world.

2. Aging And Demographics

Changing  world  demographics  are  nowhere  as  dramatic  as they  are  with  respect  to  the  age structure of the world population.  According to the UN Populations  Division and the U.S. Census, the world is graying at an unprecedented rate. For example, comparison  of the percentages  of people who will be age  60  years  or  over  in  the  years  2005  and  2030 indicates that approximately 20% of the European population  will be at least 60 years old in 2005 and that  30% of the  population  will share  that  status  by 2030. The situation in the United States is not quite as dramatic, but the increase is still noteworthy. In 2005, 17% of the U.S. population will be age 60 years or over, and in the year 2030, one-quarter  of the U.S. population will be in that age bracket. The figures are much smaller  for Latin America, where  9 and  15% of the population  are  expected  to  be at  least 60  years old in  2005  and  2030,  respectively.  The  lowest  figures are  for  Africa, where  only  5% of the  population  is currently   age  60  years  or  over  and  a  mere  7% is expected  to  reach  that  age  bracket  by  2030.  The AIDS epidemic  is  actually  reducing  the  life  expectancy  in  some  African  countries.   These  differences make  it clear  that  the  age distribution  of the  world is changing differently, depending  on national  history and   current   life  circumstances.   Interestingly,   and perhaps  contrary  to the assumptions  of most people, the  United  States ranks  only 28th  in ‘‘aging’’  among the   oldest   countries    of   the   world,   with   most European  countries  and  Japan reporting  older  populations.   Although   these   changing   age   structures reflect   increased   longevity,   this   longevity   is   due mostly to changes  at the  other  end  of the  life span. That   is,   fewer  children   are   dying   in   childbirth, thereby  increasing  the  numbers  of people  who  will live to  old  age, and  fewer children  are  being  born, thereby  reducing  the  proportion   of a  population  of young people and naturally increasing the proportion of  older   people   in   each   society.  The   decline   in fertility has reached critical proportions  in many countries,   including   Italy,  Greece,  Sweden,  Japan, and  Spain.  Although  fertility  has  been  declining  in the United  States, it has not reached  the crisis levels being experienced  in other  parts of the world.

3. Aging, Culture, and Families

The effort to understand  the association between age and culture must include consideration of both the life span perspective and the family. The life span perspective incorporates  a long-term view of the growth and maturity  of individuals  throughout their  lifetimes on multiple  dimensions.  Development  on  these  dimensions is influenced by previous developmental periods that can manifest through stability or change as well as through continuity or discontinuity. Consequently, individuals become more different from each other as they develop over time. This is noteworthy because life span development  both  affects and is affected by the cultural  milieus within which individuals live. During recent  times, those  cultural  milieus have been changing in unprecedented ways in the United States as well as around the world. Examples of cultural milieus include specific individual experiences (e.g., ethnic identity)  as well as more universal  experiences  (e.g., the  unprecedented  advances  in  technology  experienced during recent years).

Although  the  life span  perspective  focuses on  the individual,  any effort to understand  the aging experience must also include the families within which most people age. The family usually surrounds  an individual with a protective convoy that nourishes  and supports the individual as he or she faces the challenges of life. The family also is often the embodiment of the cultural perspective that the individual values. Just as each individual emerges as an older person who has evolved throughout his or her lifetime, so too does the individual bring that lifetime of growth and development to the family. At the same time, the family also evolves. A family might  begin  as a young  couple  who  are  the parents  of a small child and evolve to a family composed of an adult child with aging parents and later to a family that includes grandparents  with adult children and grandchildren.  The family can be thought of as the vessel within which the individual experiences culture. Although people experience culture at multiple levels—as an individual, as a family member, and as a member of society—it is the family that most often is both the conveyor and interpreter  of the culture.  The United States may not be the oldest country in today’s industrialized world, but the increased longevity of Americans means  that  most  individuals  will at some point be members of three-, four-, or even five-generation families. Hence, the role of the older person as a family member  in  both  promoting  and  maintaining culture has been steadily increasing.

4. Cultural Diversity And Aging

The United States has, at least ostensibly, always embraced a commitment to the blending of many cultures. This phenomenon is perhaps best exemplified in the term ‘‘melting pot.’’ This term was used to refer to the  blending  of many cultures,  but  these  cultures were mostly Western European. Although immigrants also came from China (e.g., to work on the railroads) and from Africa (e.g., to work as slaves), those immigrants were generally not among the ‘‘blended.’’ An important  new development in the cultural  influences on aging in the United States is the recent immigration from different parts of the world, namely, Central and Latin America, the  Middle East, and  Southeast  Asia. The nature  of this immigration  is important  not only because it represents  different cultural  influences but also  because  the  immigration  patterns  are  affecting how  the  United  States  ages.  As  noted  earlier,  the country is aging rapidly, but particularly  important  is the fact that among certain ethnic and racial minority groups  (i.e.,  the  ‘‘new’’  immigrant  groups),  aging is taking  place  at  an  even  more  rapid  pace  because more  older  people  are immigrating  to  be with  their children. Hence, as the U.S. population  ages, it is also becoming  more  diverse  both  racially and  ethnically. This  will  pose  a  challenge  as  different  immigrant groups  seek to maintain  their  identities  while at the same time embracing the American culture.

Several  kinds  of  aging  experiences   that   will  be directly  influenced  by cultural  background  and  perspective can  be identified.  For  example,  some  older people came to the United States as young immigrants and are now aging. Having arrived during childhood or early adulthood,  they are familiar with the American culture  and  understand   it,  often  while  maintaining some ‘‘old world’’ values. At the same time, their children and grandchildren  were most likely born in the United   States  and   have  embraced   only  American values. Some problems  may arise if, as these  individuals age, they identify more strongly with their  cultures of origin, especially in terms of their expectations about the role of families and the experience of aging.

Potentially even more problematic  is the phenomenon of immigrating in old age. Some people came to the United States to join their children, who had immigrated earlier and settled in the country. The motivation  could  be emotional  ties (i.e., a desire to be close to their children  as they age), or it could be based on pragmatic need (i.e., the expectation that children will care for their aging parents). The potential  for  conflict  in  such   families  is  even  greater because  the  elderly  immigrants   are  less  likely  to have embraced American values; therefore, the situation may exist where parents and their adult children have fundamentally  different expectations  about  the aging experience.

It is clear that people, whether they recognize it or not, experience age through a cultural lens. Thus, the changing racial and ethnic  population  of the United States represents a unique group of individuals. These different  cultural  backgrounds  affected their  individual  lifetime  experiences  as  children,   adolescents, and  adults.  It will, of course,  also affect their  aging experiences both cumulatively and contemporaneously.  Each cultural  group  has  a unique  history. For example, consider the case of Cuban immigrants in Miami, Florida,  who fled Fidel Castro’s dictatorship and arrived in the United States feeling forcibly expelled from their homeland.  When they arrived in the country,  they found very sympathetic  Americans who  believed  that  Castro  was  an  evil  and  unjust dictator who was treating Cuban people unfairly. On the  other  hand,  Middle  Easterners  also  have  come to the United States to escape an unpopular  dictator, but  during   recent  times,  Americans  have  become more hostile, rather  than less hostile, toward people from  the  Middle  East. In  addition,  despite  the  fact that Middle Easterners also came to escape an unjust dictator,   war,  and  oppression,   they  are  currently viewed with suspicion,  unkindness,  and resentment. But  another   current   example  indicates  that  these more recent reactions are not ubiquitous.  Interestingly, although  the  United  States is experiencing  increased hostilities  with  North  Korea,  this  hostility  does  not seem to extend to Koreans in this country. They also fled a homeland torn by war, but somehow Americans are more accepting of their presence and their culture. The attitudes  of the American public certainly influence the aging experience of both early and later immigrants.

Although these comments  have addressed  the general concept of culture, there are culture-specific expectations  and beliefs concerning  health and aging. The next section briefly considers the health implications of culture on aging persons and their family.

5. Age, Culture, And Social Relations

Individuals age within families, communities, and society. They interact  with these organized structures most frequently through  social relations. Social scientists have studied social relations extensively, and it is increasingly  understood   that   social  relations   affect both  the  psychological health  and  physical health  of people of all ages. This is evident in models emerging from  the  childhood  literature,  such  as the  life span attachment  model, as well as in those emerging from the adult literature, such as the convoy model of social relations.  Both of these models emphasize  that  social relations accumulate over time and influence both contemporaneous and longitudinal  choices. These literatures have identified several elements of social relations that  influence  both morbidity  and mortality.  In the convoy model, as well as in other adult social relations models, these elements include structural characteristics  such  as the number,  age, gender,  role relationship,  and  years known  of network  members; support  exchanged  with  network  members  such  as love, tangible aid, and advice; and evaluation of these relationships,  that  is, whether  one feels that  they are positive or negative and whether one is satisfied and/or happy  with  them.  Although  some elements  of social relations  transcend  age and  culture,  other  aspects of social relations  are fundamentally  influenced  by culture and age. For example, most people of all ages have close social relations  with their parents,  spouses, and children. Europeans tend to include more extended family members among their close social relations, whereas  this  is less true  among Americans, who are more likely to include friends.

Social relations  involve the exchange of social support in all cultures. How often these supports are exchanged, as well as who exchanges them, what supports are exchanged, and when the supports are exchanged,  often varies by age and  cultural  expectations. Although it is common across cultures to expect that parents will provide for their children when their children  are young, the degree to which parents  continue to do so when those children become adults, or the way in which the expectation  might reverse such that parents expect support  from their adult children, varies by culture and country. In a recent Italian court case, parents were sued by their employed, 35-year-old son because he was reluctant  to accede to his parents’ wishes  that  he  move out  and  live on  his  own.  The Italian  court  ruled  in favor of the  son, requiring  the parents  to  continue   providing  room  and  board  for as long as the son so desired. A similar case would be unheard  of in  the  United  States because  it  is  nonnormative for an able adult son to live with his parents and  because no court  would  sustain  such  a petition. Similarly, in the United States, it is common for parents to attempt to provide for their adult children, for example,  through   gifts,  favors,  and   loans.  But  in Japan,  the  culture  assumes  the  opposite;  that  is, no matter  what  age, children  are understood  to be in a state  of indebtedness  to  their  parents  and,  thus,  are expected to be constantly in the position of providing to their parents rather than receiving from them.

There are many factors that influence how social relations are evaluated. There are objective characteristics that influence this evaluation, but a solid accumulation  of empirical evidence indicates that significant subjective characteristics influence this evaluation as well. Subjective evaluation could be considerably different depending  on the age and culture  within  which the social relations  are embedded. The Italian son just described would rate his parental support  received  as poor,  whereas  an  American son would not. An adult American son might be dissatisfied  and  unhappy   if  his  parents   did  not  provide a college fund or a down payment  on a house, whereas the  lack of either  of these  in another  culture  would generate no parallel dissatisfaction or unhappiness. For older family members, it is clear that their expectations vary depending on both age and culture. Interestingly, in the United States, some evidence indicates that younger people expect to provide more support  than their elders expect to receive, whereas in other countries, parents  report  rather  high expectations  of what their  children  should  provide.  Regardless of the  cultural  convention  regarding  who is in an individual’s social network  or an objective assessment  of what is exchanged,  evaluation  of social relations  varies considerably.   This   variation,   although   influenced   by many factors, has been well documented  in the influence of culture on health and well-being.

6. Cultural Influences On The Health Of Aging People

Different cultural experiences, traditions, and values have direct implications for the expectations of both elders and their  families.  These  expectations   range  from  minor considerations  (e.g., concerning customs around favorite foods or holiday traditions) to more significant ones (e.g., concerning family roles and responsibilities).

There is clear evidence that culture influences health. Some examples are illustrative. It has been documented that  elderly  Japanese living in  Japan are  much  more likely to die of a stroke than are elderly Japanese living in the United States, where the leading cause of death has  been  cardiovascular  disease.  This  difference  has been traced to dietary differences in ethnically Japanese people living in Japan versus those living in the United States. Similarly, hypertension is a major health problem among people of African descent  living in the United States but  is relatively  rare  among  Africans living in Africa. Researchers have suggested that this difference is caused  by the  stressful  life circumstances  of racial discrimination    experienced    in   the   United   States. Another interesting example is menopause. Research in medicine, epidemiology, and anthropology  has consistently documented that women in many countries (e.g., Japan) experience fewer and/or lighter menopause symptoms (e.g., hot flash, insomnia,  depression)  than do American women. Although a consensus explanation has not yet been reached,  these differences have been attributed  to diet (e.g., soybeans) and cultural  attitude toward (e.g., acceptance of) the physical and physiological changes associated with aging. A final and compelling argument  for the influence of culture  on health is that, regardless of the health differences evident among people of different countries, by the third generation all immigrants exhibit patterns more similar to other Americans than to people from their countries of origin.

Cultural  expectations  of family roles and responsibilities are critical when they have a direct impact on an older person’s health and expectations  concerning health care. Some simple examples are illuminating. In some countries (e.g., Japan), it is much more common for older people to live with their adult children.  The differences in customs have both positive and negative implications. In Japan, older people often live in their own home, and an adult child—often the eldest son— continues  to live at home with his wife and children. Although  this  is a traditional  custom  that  has  been changing in modern Japan, it does mean that traditionally a live-in relative attended to the health care needs of a family’s oldest members. This live-in relative was most often not the eldest son but rather his wife, that is, the  daughter-in-law.  Much has been made of the advantages of coresidence  for the elderly in terms of meeting their health care and other  needs as they get older.   However,  social  scientists   have  increasingly documented  that not all such arrangements  are ideal. There is often tension between the daughter-in-law and her parents-in-law  as well as between the son and his parents.  This coresidential  custom is much  less common in the United States, and when it does occur, it is often the  case that  a parent  moves in with  an adult child, although the opposite may be the case when the adult child is impoverished or experiencing a life crisis such  as divorce  or  job loss. Under  the  coresidential condition  where the elder moves in with a child, the power dynamics are reversed in terms of the traditional American family dynamics as well as the situation just described  in Japan. Tension  can arise in this case as well, although  health care needs and expectations are also more likely to be met. Certainly, these examples provide persuasive testimony concerning the influence of culture on the health experience of aging people.

7. Summary And Conclusions

With the radically changing world demographics leading to a significant  increase  in  the  number  of older people, it is critical to attend to those factors that positively or negatively affect the experience of aging. Although culture is an important influence, one should be aware that there are also other factors that influence aging  and  family  relations   such  as  socioeconomic status,  race, and  industrialization. Therefore,  culture should be neither overlooked nor overestimated. It remains   for  researchers   and   clinicians   to  identify when  culture  is a primary  factor and  when  it is not and to determine at what point one should seek to optimize  the  experience  of  aging  both  within  and across cultures.


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