Cultural perceptions of aging affect health status, caregiving

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Images by Judy Baxter, NCVO and Steven Gray via Flickr.

Images by Judy Baxter, NCVO and Steven Gray via Flickr.

A new study out of the United Kingdom reinforces the influence that culture and societal attitudes can have on the health status of older adults. Psychologists from the University of Kent used data from the European Social Survey to ask respondents, all age 70 or older, to self-rate their health.

In countries where old age is thought of as signifying low status, participants who identified themselves as ‘old’ felt worse about their own health. The opposite was true in places where older people have a perception of higher social status. The researchers concluded that elevating perceived social status of older people would reduce negative connotations associated with old age and the negative impact on how healthy people felt.

The value different societies place on the elderly has a lot to with how they are cared for later in life, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond explained in a recent TED talk. These effects in turn, influence public policy for global long-term services and supports. The International Federation of Social Workers recently noted, “Although older adults serve as essential resources to their communities, they face a great risk of marginalization.”

In addition to cultural and self perceptions of aging, family living arrangements and social networks are also connected to healthier aging. A Pew Research report looked at some of the negative perceptions associated with aging in the U.S.

As Ann Bookman and Delia Kimbrel wrote in “Families and Elder Care in the Twenty-First Century,” elder caregiving varies by gender, race and socioeconomic status. Families from African American, Latino, Asian, Native American, and other minority groups bring their own strengths and needs to the caregiving experience. They noted, for example, that few families from racial or ethnic minority groups use paid outsourced care.

Finances play a role in these groups, but so does a culture of extensive social support, reciprocity, and interdependence. By comparison, Western European and white ethnic groups place a higher value on independence and self-reliance.

Cultural attitudes about aging can serve as a springboard for numerous story ideas: for example, an article that contrasts and compares how different communities – such as traditional Asian or Latino – perceive and value older adults.

Do the elderly tend to live with family members or are they cared for long distance? Are they put into nursing homes or assisted living facilities? Who carries the majority of the caregiving burden?

This AARP article discusses racial and ethnic differences in long-term care service use among older adults. This excellent article from New America Media looks at differences in attitudes about hospice and palliative care among ethnic groups, and this New York Times article examines the struggle among some Asian-Americans to honor their cultural code surrounding elder care.

AHCJ’s reporting guide, “Covering Health in a Multicultural Society,” has additional resources and ideas. AHCJ member Paul Kleyman has authored a terrific tip sheet on covering aging in ethnic and minority groups including a list of specialized resources and what questions to ask.

The health of older adults is impacted by self-perception, societal perception, and cultural perceptions. What’s the perception in your community?

2 thoughts on “Cultural perceptions of aging affect health status, caregiving

  1. Patricia Thomas

    Makes total sense. Years ago I heard a presentation at a menopause conference comparing estrogen withdrawal symptoms in US (where older women lose status) to a Greek island where only post-menopausal women have a say in local policy and politics. You won’t be surprised to hear that women who gained status with age had fewer symptoms.

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