Cultural Differences in the Ways We Care For Our Elders in America

By Agata Przekop, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Fall 2016

As someone who comes from what we can generally call Eastern culture, I would like to share my thoughts and observations about differences in social conventions when it comes to older people and issues that affect the aging population.

American values tend to focus strongly around youth and individualism, while Polish people tend to identify themselves as a part of a collective society. This distinction comes from different cultural assumptions, traditions and challenges that the two nations faced in their histories. Of course there are people in Western culture that are strongly family oriented and have extremely close ties with their parents and grandparents, and people from Eastern culture that are more future-oriented, independent and self-reliant. However, I think it is fair to say that there are some, more or less defined general cultural assumptions and principals that characterize both those worlds. For example, in an Eastern country like Poland, it is not that uncommon to find a family of multiple generations living under the same roof. Because of this, it is far more likely that when a parent or a grandparent needs daily assistance, a family member will treat it as his duty to step up as a caregiver. Because of this social expectation, it is uncommon to put an elder person to a nursing home or assisted living facility. Younger family members are not only expected to become caregivers of their elders, they would expose themselves to a social ostracism if they didn’t follow this convention.

In collective societies, the tradition is to depend on one another, and to build strong family ties, while Americans, from very early in their lives, are taught to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own lives and decisions with strong emphasis for personal freedom and independence. I think that it is this feeling of losing independence and becoming a burden on the family which determines the older Americans willingness to accept the possibility of moving to a nursing home.

In the Eastern culture, there is an assumption that children have a moral obligation to take care of their parents when they get older, and a devoted, family-oriented child is a sign that he or she was raised properly. While in Western society, successful parenting implicates teaching a child how to be self-reliant, and loosening of a parent-child tie is a natural process.

Being a part of a family-oriented society results in implied respect, understanding and empathy towards older people, but family obligations can also prevent individuals from moving forward and pursuing their own dreams. On the other hand, being independent and self-reliant helps one to become successful in life, but lack of those traditions that impose responsibility for one’s elders might result in a situation where older generation is left to their own devices and their needs are forgotten.

Having all the in mind, I’m positive that those two cultures can learn from each other and inspire one another. It is our job to create a society and environment for our elders which make them feel comfortable. The key is to treat our elders in a way we would like to be treated, and we cannot forget that we’ll all grow our gray hairs someday.