4 cultures that could teach you about embracing older age

Four older people laughing and hiking together

Growing older can pose many physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that are not always best supported by the society you live in.

While no one culture has perfected the rite of passage into later life, there are elements from different traditions that show how old age can be welcomed.

Some regard it as a time to focus on what really matters, while others see it as an opportunity to take on the role of an experienced elder with wisdom to offer.

Read on to discover four cultural traditions that could teach you about embracing older age.

1. Spain and the importance of family

In Spain, multigenerational living is more common than in other western countries.

A UN report found that around 20% of older people in Spain live with at least one of their children, one of the highest rates in Europe.

In the UK, more than 30% of over 65s live alone, while in Spain it’s around 20%.

A study by the University of Oxford found that elderly people were more likely to die in the first nine months of their admission to a care home than if they stayed at home with their family. This suggests that remaining within the family living space can increase longevity.

This is further supported by the fact that Spain is projected to have the longest life expectancy in the world by 2040.

The Guardian reports that, in 2016, Spanish people were ranked fourth in terms of life expectancy, with the average person living 82.9 years. Japan was in first place, with an average life expectancy of 83.7.

If the projected changes happen, Spain will reach an average lifespan of 85.8 years in 2040, relegating Japan to second place with 85.7 years.

Though this is in part down to the Mediterranean diet, good public healthcare, and the falling smoking levels in Spain, the importance and stability of the family unit also likely play a significant role.

As you get older and more reliant, the importance of family may become clearer, and Spain offers a good example of just how valuable maintaining that connection can be.

2. Indigenous Americans and the passing on of wisdom

Among Indigenous American communities, the elderly are regarded as repositories of philosophical and cultural wisdom. They are also held as storytellers or transmitters of this knowledge, who can pass it on to younger, less experienced members of the community.

Elders are seen as human libraries, holding valuable information on subjects ranging from the practical and mechanical to the spiritual and ceremonial.

Their unique insights may sometimes be called upon in formal contexts such as classrooms and conferences, or more communal settings, such as ceremonies or the home.

Indigenous American elders may also be involved in key decision-making regarding the direction of their community.

Although our culture may not treat your later years with such veneration and respect, embracing the role of a wise and experienced member of your community or family could lend your position as an older person unique value in being able to offer advice and guidance to younger generations.

3. Japan and finding your ikigai

Japan has one of the highest number of centenarians per 100,000 persons, and Okinawa has one of the highest in Japan.

What’s their secret?

Well, among the usual recommendations for a good diet, regular sleep, and exercise, is the Japanese philosophy known as “ikigai”.

Ikigai roughly translates as “a reason to be”. It is a lifestyle philosophy that encourages you to find a confluence between what you’re good at, what you love, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

It can take the best part of a lifetime to find your ikigai and it may not be until your later years that you have the time to fully reflect on what it may be.

The pressures of work and family life can leave you with little time for yourself, and what you end up getting paid for may be very different from what you love.

But it is never too late to find your real sense of purpose and channel your unique talents and abilities, and your older years are a great time to become the version of yourself you have always wanted to be.

4. Korea and the value of respect

Although Confucious hailed from China, his influence was far-reaching and still resonates in much of modern Asia, including South Korea.

Confucious advocated filial piety – respect for one’s parents – and in South Korea, younger family members must care for the older ones.

Outside of the family unit, Koreans are socialised to show respect and deference to their elders and authority figures, even if they are only a few years older.

Koreans generally bow to greet or leave their elders, and younger generations give older ones honorific titles that show their respect – “Hyeong” for males, “Nuna” for females, and “Oppa” is used by females when addressing older males who they are very close with.

In Korea, it is also common for people to have big celebrations for their 60th and 70th birthdays, as it is seen as a time to celebrate the passage into older age.

As you grow older, your age and experience are worthy of respect, and Korean culture shows how younger generations can demonstrate their recognition of how valuable you and your life experiences are.