Old Age and Death in Different Cultures

Table of Contents

As Jared Diamond (2013) explains in his talk “How societies can grow old better?”, the life of the elderly population varies considerably in different parts of the world. Similarly, the attitude towards death and dying is not the same in every country and culture, and it also changes depending on the age of the person. Thus, it is important to address those factors when talking about old age and death in different countries, and in order to understand the underlying psychological processes.

Culture in the elderly

As Diamond (2013) describes, there are two main types of societies: traditional and modern, and the two vary widely regarding their attitude towards the old age.

Modern societies of developed countries, such as the US, are also called industrial societies. The life in those communities is fast-paced; it follows the development of technology and people are expected to adjust to the changing conditions quickly. Work life is crucial, so people spend the vast part of their life building a career. Due to these features, seniors are considered unfitting into the society: they are not always capable of learning new technologies quickly, and they don’t work; therefore, they do not make any valuable contribution to the society (Diamond, 2013).

Moreover, Diamond (2013) explains, that in America there is a strong focus on independence, and thus older people, who are no longer self-supporting, are excluded from the society. In my opinion, there is another significant influence that the culture of independence has on the relationship between senior citizens and the youths. The latter want to gain as much freedom as they can in their life, which is why they typically aim to live apart from the older family members. I, personally, only know a few families where the grandparents live together with other family members, whereas in most cases, retirement homes are the chosen option.

Traditional societies, on the other hand, show a different tendency. Older people are given more value within the community due to their extensive experience and knowledge (Diamond, 2013). The elderly are respected and tend to live with their family or friends until they die, whereas the younger people are expected to support them. For instance, in India, the newlywed couple move in with the man’s parents and continue to live together even when they have children (Diamond, 2013). Some tribal societies even believe that the elders have special powers, and the only cases when the younger part of the tribe would leave the grandparents behind would be in times of hunger or other severe life conditions, as Diamond (2013) states. However, this does not always mean better living standards for the elderly population. Some families neglect the elders despite living together with them, which may lead to various health problems or even death of the older people (Diamond, 2013).

Death and dying

In American culture, death is always a tragedy, be it a natural death, a lethal disease, or an unfortunate accident. The society seems to be so focused on the value of life and the experience of living that we forget that life is finite and usually are not prepared to die nor to deal with the death of a friend or family member. This is the reason why American Psychological Association (APA, 2016) underlines the importance of psychological aid in coping with death: “psychologists can treat depression and anxiety associated with pending death, offer grief counseling, help people understand confusing medical terms, and help provide compassionate care for the dying and their loved ones”.

Similarly to Diamond (2013), APA (2016) discusses the influence of culture on the experience of death. For instance, it states how “inadequate knowledge of patients’ cultures, preferences for communication, palliative care, decision-making, and choices at end of life inhibits care” (APA, 2016), meaning that it is important for psychologists to understand different cultural backgrounds to provide better care.

There is also a separate section on APA (2016) website on the loss and grief, but it has limited resource options and information. For instance, there is little to no discussion of the influence of loss on people of different ages. Nevertheless, understanding of the mechanisms of grief is important for development psychologists, as the reaction to death is different in children, adults, and older people: for instance, as APA notes, “older adults want better discussions, information, and a chance to influence decisions about their care” (2016). From my experience, I can confirm that this is true. When my friend’s grandmother died, people in her family had a different reaction to it depending on their age. My friend’s little brother didn’t seem to understand the situation yet, whereas her mother was devastated by the loss and had to seek professional help in order to return to normal life.


All in all, it is clear that culture and age play a fundamental part in people’s attitude to old age and death. Thus, a better understanding of those factors could help improve the quality of life of the elders as well as to provide better care to people who are dying or experiencing the loss of a loved one.


American Psychological Association (APA). (2016). Death & dying. Web.

Diamond, J. (2013).  Web.

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