Status of the Aged

In many traditional societies studied by anthropologists, older adults commonly function as a storehouse of knowledge about such things as kin ties, health, religious rituals, lore, and myth which explain tribal origins as well as in-depth knowledge about the environment. Among many African tribal peoples, older adults are the gatekeepers for the ritual management of life, from the naming of children to the planting songs chanted by West African village women to assure the younger female farmers that the harvest will be good.

It is clear from the ethnographic literature that great age does not guarantee good treatment. Pamela Amoss and Steven Harrell propose that there are two key factors that determine how older adults fare in their particular cultural settings. First is the relative balance between the contributions older persons make to the costs they represent. Second is the control over resources important to younger members of the community. They sum this up succinctly by predicting that:

The position of the aged in a given society can be expressed in terms of how much old people contribute to the resources of the group, balanced by the cost they exact, and compounded by the degree of control they have over valuable resources. (Amoss & Harrell, 1981, p. 6)

Various studies using the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) have corroborated in many respects the association of status and deference with the control of informational and administrative roles as well as valued activities and extended family integration (Silverman, 1987). Silverman's analysis finds that in terms of resource and information control, only certain types of control, particularly administration and consultation, correlate with beneficient treatment of the elderly. Some forms of supernatural information control, especially transformational powers, were in fact a potential threat to the elderly. Under conditions of rapid change, older women who are linked to esoteric power such as witchcraft, may be seen as great liabilities and put to death. This happened in great numbers in Europe during the middle ages (Bever, 1982) and in certain areas of East Africa during the mid-1990s ("Witchcraft-a violent threat," 2000).

This darker side of aging—various types of non-supportive and even harsh treatment directed toward the elderly—has been studied in worldwide statistical studies (Glascock, 1997; Silverman, 1987). These studies make clear that being old in a small-scale, face-to-face community does not necessarily prevent cultural variants of severe neglect and abuse from occurring. In Glascock's study killing of the aged was found in about one fifth of his global sample, finding 84% of the societies exhibiting various forms of non-supportive treatment. This was defined as involving either killing, abandonment, or forsaking of the elderly. In a similar study Silverman and Maxwell (1987) noted "negative deference" (harsh treatment) in 62% of their cases. Importantly, it was commonly found that both supportive as well as death-hastening behavior co-exist in the same social setting. Both studies found that cultural distinctions drawn between intact, fully functioning aged and decrepit individuals who find it difficult to carry out even the most basic tasks are critical. As Barker's (1997) ethnographic analysis of the frail aged on Niue Island also shows, it is persons placed in the decrepit category toward which geronticide or death-hastening is most frequently applied.

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