Cultural Differences in Caregiving: What Can We Learn?

Family saying grace at holiday table by Gable Denims on

When you think of what it means to care for an aging parent or loved one, what do you think of?  If you’re Caucasian and North American, chances are you think about making sure your loved one has a nice nursing home and good, quality staff on hand to help take care of them.  You may think about how frequently you visit and what kind of extra support you can afford, but that’s about it.  This is the standard of care that has been promoted and perpetuated in Western culture and it really can be summed up as a disengaged type of care.  Yet most adults would likely admit they’d rather be with loved ones helping them (with assistance if needed) than placed in a home.  So how do we change our mindset on care?

Looking around the world, we can see that this mindset is not universal.  In Japan, for example, elders are held in high esteem and their care is paramount.  This was highlighted in a story from the 2011 earthquake that killed thousands.  The story is of a young mother who, upon feeling the first tremors of the earthquake, placed her 2-month-old baby down to help her 80-year-old grandmother to safety first.  Tragically, a tidal wave carried her and her baby away after she returned downstairs to get her child to safety, but her grandmother remained safe.  

Contrast this with hunter-gatherer tribes in which the greater value is on the group.  In his book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond shares the story of an elderly woman who was left behind to die when her family and tribe moved on one day.  She was too weak to make it to the next destination on her own so the best thing to do for the group was to leave her in order for the group to survive.  Just as putting an elder ahead of a young child seems unfathomable, so too would leaving an elder to die alone seem equally wrong.  Yet these are the prescriptions on caregiving that exist in our world and are varied as the cultures that enact them.

We can see shades of these differences in North America and they offer an interesting perspective for us to consider.  Research looking at caregiving attitudes in the United States has found interesting cross-cultural differences within the USA regarding caregiving, giving us some lessons that we should take to heart if we hope to change our caregiving culture.  

Lesson #1: Seeing is Normalizing

Within Asian American, African American, and Hispanic American communities, the idea of providing care for elders is simply a part of life.  Individuals growing up in these cultures reported witnessing caregiving growing up and so it was an expected part of life.  This shouldn’t be surprising as what we witness growing up has a large influence on the schemas we develop about the world.  When we see the adults around us caring for elders, we assume this is what people do and that the same expectation will hold for us.  In contrast, European Americans reported not seeing this type of elder care as children.  Without this foundation to build upon, as adults they can struggle to view the role of caregiver as an oddity and lack the knowledge of how to care for an elder.  With this in mind, if we want our children to grow up with a caregiving mindset, we need to make sure they have a foundation of care built in which means seeing us care for people around us, either family or others.

copy by tim wege on

Lesson #2: We Need Male Caregiving Role Models

In all subcultures, females were the primary caregivers.  In Asian American and Hispanic American communities, this was in large part due to the prescription that caregiving was a female job; however, even in African American and European American culture, females traditionally hold this role.  We could take this to mean that caregiving is a more feminine act, better suited to females (likely following the biological role of caregiving of children), but this ignores the power of our environment and the possibility of change.  If we want males to be more involved in caregiving, we need to make sure they have male role models who are modeling this behaviour.  This means it’s up to each family to ensure that both sexes carry their weight when it comes to caregiving and children are exposed to the strengths that each member of a family can offer when it comes to caregiving.  

funny family portraits by Cristian Negroni on

Lesson #3: Without Family Ties, We Need the Golden Rule

Why do people care for elders?  Goodness knows it’s not always a pleasant job and often can take a huge mental and emotional toll on those who are in charge of care.  However, people still do it.  In collectivist cultures – e.g., Asian or Hispanic cultures – there is no real “choice” in caregiving.  To refuse this role would be to cause such family strife that abandonment is rarely considered.  But what of the rest of us who can’t rely upon that?  How do we get our children to view caregiving as being worthwhile?  It seems one of the main ways is a belief in the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The Golden Rule not only activates our perspective-taking and empathic abilities, but also allows us to attach greater meaning to roles that have often been undervalued in our society.  (Like caregiving.)  Thus, the more we instill this rule in our children, the better the chance they will consider our well-being when it’s time.

African American woman hugging father outdoors by Gable Denims on

Let’s face it:

Our culture is not very supportive of caregiving, especially when done by family members (with or without help).  Looking at other cultures provides us with insights into how to change this.  We don’t need to prescribe caregiving, but we can and should change the way we think about it and model it for our children if we ever hope to have a society that values caregiving and the people who do it.

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