Do Economics Influence Attitudes Towards Aging?

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I have been working on a power point presentation entitled “One Size Does Not Fit All.”  The presentation will focus on how the cultural  mores of the aging population in our country are beginning to influence how we, as a culture, need to respond.

While doing research on this project, I am finding some very interesting studies.  One in particular struck a chord:  How economics influences our attitude towards aging.

Early studies which focused on socioeconomic predictors found that higher levels of economic development and industrialization are associated with less favorable attitudes towards aging and a lower societal status of older adults (e.g., Simmons, 1945Arnhoff, et al., 1964Maxwell, 1970Bengtson, Dowd, Smith, & Inkeles, 1975Palmore & Manton, 1974).

Why would this be?  Well, first off, the more money there is, the easier it is to “put an elderly away.”   In this country, retirement communities have sprung up all over and have, in fact, become an accepted part of the aging process.  This, in turn, means that grandchildren do not have a lot of opportunities to spend with their grandparents.  If the grandparent is not a regular part of the child’s environment, what sort of rapport can develop between the two individuals?  The less youth has an opportunity to interact with older citizens, the more likely they will develop a disdain for the apparent fogginess they encounter and even the inability to close the cultural gap that naturally exists between the energy of youth and the less energetic elder.

On the other hand, if a child grows up with [a] grandparent(s) in which the grandparent(s) [is] a very dynamic part of their world, their attitude will be very different.  There will be a bond.  There will be a sense of love.  They will actually see that Grandma or Grandpa has many sides to their personality.  They might even have the opportunity to see how grandma or grandpa change as they age and recognize that this is the natural order of things.

In turn, if the grandparent(s) [is] in a retirement community and the family visits them once a week, usually on a Sunday after church or brunch and the kid is in a strange environment, still in his/her church clothes witnessing a forced situation of having to make conversation, how much relating can really occur?  Most children don’t think to ask their grandparent what their life was like when they were younger.  So they sit there, feeling awkward in front of a virtually old stranger, just waiting for the moment when they can get up to leave to go home.

(Cowgill, 19721986) argues that industrialization has undermined the societal status of older adults and with the break up of the traditional extended family through urbanization, has shifted the value of the elder’s means of production and experienced based knowledge to a much lower rung.  Although in some circles, modernization theory is considered an oversimplification, I find that there is enough within the studies that validate the argument that modernization has had a negative influence in society’s general attitude towards its aging population.

In a study done by Corinna E. Löckenhoff, National Institute on Aging, Baltimore, USA, the researchers approached their study with the following predictions:

In general, we predicted that perceptions about aspects of aging that are strongly linked to biological changes (i.e., physical aging and changes in fluid cognitive abilities) would show less variation across cultures and fewer associations with culture-level variables than perceptions of socioemotional aspects of aging (e.g., family relations and life satisfaction) and societal views of the aging process. For culture-level associations with socioeconomic characteristics, we expected to replicate previous research indicating that advanced development is associated with less favorable perceptions of aging.

Their findings confirmed this.  Utilizing Dutch Sociologist, Geert Hofstede’s value dimensions:

participants from cultures with greater Uncertainty Avoidance* reported more negative societal views of aging. Uncertainty Avoidance was also associated with less favorable expectations about age-related changes in family authority and life satisfaction. Further, participants from cultures higher in Power Distance** reported less favorable views of age-related changes in knowledge and wisdom.

Although this is a large topic of which only a small piece is reviewed in this blog entry, it just is another indication of how we need to re-think aging and bring it back as part of the mix.

 

* the concept of Uncertainty Avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty.  The more structured a society is, ie, Germany, the less comfortable its citizenry is with ambiguity.

** Power Distance refers to how those individuals who are less powerful within an entity (whether a society or a family) accept and expect inequality in the power structure with which they find themselves.