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Is Respecting Our Elders Outdated?

Updated: May 18, 2023

"We also respect and acknowledge the lived experience of our elders as valuable members of society with a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to contribute"

Most of you have heard me share the African proverb, "When an old person dies, a library dies with them".

I was raised in a culture with deep respect and reverence for the elders. In particular, women over 50 gain elevated status as wisdom holders of the community and I really love that. After my mother passes, I will hold the most exalted position in my family as the oldest woman. This is daunting but certainly a privilege.

In this issue Jody will explore the idea, Is respecting our elders outdated?

This question is mute in my culture as supporting, helping, deferring to, and serving our elders are the natural way of life in mine and many other cultures.

With my 86 year of mother in my recent visit to London

Is respecting our elders an outdated custom?

by Jody Webster

I was raised to believe three things that have stayed with me my entire life: respecting my elders, being polite to everyone, and always wearing clean underwear (in case I got hit by a bus). I raised my own three children the same way, believing that it was the right way to live.

Imagine my surprise when I became an ‘elder’ and realised that somewhere along the way, the rules had changed. To a large extent, older people are no longer valued in Australia as being useful members of society, and in some instances are even seen as burdens on the community.

It is reported that by 2050, approximately one-quarter of all Australians will be aged 65 and over, and will, by about 2025 overtake the number of children aged 0 to 14.

Sadly, around a third of Australians aged between 55 and 64 said that they have experienced discrimination because of their age, either being turned down for a job, being ignored, or worse, being treated rudely or having jokes made about their age.

Many cultures around the world show high respect for the elderly, valuing their age and respecting their stories, experiences and wisdom.

In Asian cultures, children are raised knowing that one day they will have the honour of swapping roles with their parents, becoming their carers. In China, there are actual laws regarding the treatment and visitation of parents. Imagine being told you had broken the law by not visiting your parents often enough! In Singapore, not supporting your parents financially, may result in jail time.

The African cultures celebrate their elders. Grandparents often live with their adult children and respect is a driving force for their treatment.

In our own First Nation’s culture, the Elders are of critical importance to the well-being of the community. They are responsible for governance, sharing stories, song and dance, teaching, leadership, and overseeing spiritual practice and ceremony.

In Western cultures however, it seems that only youth is valued. Staying younger, looking younger, is promoted everywhere.

In Canada, Donna Wilson, a nursing professor who studies ageing said:

“Ageism is now thought to be the most common form of prejudice, and the issue is, we don’t even recognise how prevalent and impactful it is. A lot of societies are really youth-oriented now and don’t really respect or care about older people. We think they’re a drain on society, and that’s where a lot of the myths and long-standing prejudices arise.”

In Australia, our better health is allowing us to live longer and work long past our recognised retirement age. We bring years of experience and knowledge and, if we are allowed to, become an asset to our employers.

We need to work together to change how society sees us as we age. It is said that a disrespectful person never earns respect for himself. To earn respect, we must give respect, and lead by example.

One of the earliest memories I have of my childhood is of visiting my great-grandmother every Wednesday for lunch. I was raised by my grandmother (whom I called ‘mum’), and we would make the journey by train and walk the half kilometre or so, rain, hail, sleet or snow to ‘Ma’s’ house, where she and my great-aunt Leila would be waiting for us.

The adults would talk, while I perched patiently on my dining room chair, maybe looking at a picture book (I was too young to read), or cuddling a doll, because I knew that if I was very good, Ma would let me have a ride on the rocking chair she kept in her bedroom. I did not dream of interrupting, or demanding attention or a different meal because I didn’t like what was being served for lunch. It was unthought of that I would announce that I was bored, or that I wanted to watch TV. Today, this would be seen as some sort of child abuse, but I loved and respected those three women with all my heart.

I listened to their conversations and I learned stories of what it was like for women in Australia during WWI and WW2 while their husbands were away overseas, I learned what it was like growing up in the late 1800s, I learned how they survived during the great depression, I learned what it was like for women to be given the right to vote, and how women's roles had changed; and were continuing to change. Stories that I hope to share with my grandchildren.

Allowing our children and grandchildren to spend time with our elderly family members while we are lucky enough to still have them with us, allowing them to listen to their stories and appreciate their wisdom is a great start to changing the way young people view older people. These days, in our increasingly busy world, taking the time to pop in on our elderly family members, neighbours,and friends may seem just one more chore that we have to fit into our already overloaded lives, but by making that time, by showing that respect, we are teaching the next generation how to treat us when our turn comes.

Photo: Grandparent's Day 2022 with my granddaughter Elizabeth

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