Thursday, 13 August 2009

Loss of respect for the elderly

We are all going to grow old!

"Older people are the custodians of our traditions, our heritage and our cultures. They reflect our past and are the mirrors of our future. They have the right to a healthy, productive life, to live in a caring environment and to be treated with respect." - South African Minister of Social Development at the United Nations Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid.

As human beings were are the only conscious animal that is aware that one day our own existence will end. This is scary and many of us prefer to ignore this through denial and repression. However, we only know this because we have a memory of those who have passed before us.

Our memories are not only there to remind us of the bad things (such as death), but also plays an important role in our development and survival. In the wild, it is the old, wily Kudu who lives the longest because he has learnt from experience and retains the memories.

In all cultures, the history of a tribe, as well as the memories of past calamities was preserved only in the minds of the old people. Thus it was important before the written word, for all cultures to remember and pass on the knowledge of life saving information. The young thus stayed with in close proximity to their elders, and made effort to look after them in their old age. This is also one of the important foundations in worship of the forefathers.

Earlier than in other cultures, Europeans memories have been passed on to the next through the written word. This has been an important reason for their world dominance. The less reliance needed on the old, led in turn to smaller family units and inevitably accumulation of power and wealth in the hands of the few. It also led to younger family members being able to hold their elders to account for their past actions and decisions.

As the various cultures throughout the world have become civilised, they have gained the knowledge of the existing written word (mostly from the Bible) and often lost their own culture and memories before it is preserved in a written form.

However, since the advent of the World Wide Web in 1994, more and more of our memories, and thus our past, are available to all. And to add injury to insult, it is the young who are able to access the Web the easiest. With this vast library of information available at their fingertips, it is becoming easier for the young to judge their elders.

Our elders have lost the advantage of being the memory banks of our culture and history.

In a similar vein, earlier communication between the generations occurred at night after the evening meal. During the story telling (imparting of past wisdoms), the young were to be seen “not heard”. This was an important gesture of respect for the old, and a way of ensuring your own survival if you should get into an unfamiliar and deadly situation.

Our modern technology now means we all have cellular telephones. However, it is often the younger person doing the calling. The purpose is often still the same – to get something, whether information or to request money.

Now they cut the elder short during the normal greetings (a sign of respect) because “my credit is going to run out so listen quickly!”

We need a law to protect our elderly. Such a law must include:
• The right of older persons to live safely and without fear of abuse;
• the assumption that older persons are competent to make informed choices and decisions about their lives;
• the right of older persons to be treated fairly and be valued independently of their economic contribution; and
• the right of older persons to have access to employment, health, welfare, transportation, social assistance and other support systems without regard to economic status.
The law must also provide a mechanism punish abuse of the elderly.