Ageism and Culture Essay

The institutions of society categorize individuals based on age, social practices and relationship boundaries (Hendricks et al. 2005). The institution of ageing can be described as the changing dimensions of role allocation, for example, mother to grandmother or working husband to retiree (Hendricks et al. 2005). This is part of the contemporary value orientation and resource competition, where the ageing of the members of society defines their value in the familial perspective and the resources, such as employment or medical benefits, allocated to them (Schoenberg et al 2005). The cross-cultural approach used in the following research allows for an examination of the link between medical ethnology from a cultural perspective (Schoenberg et al 2005). This method of gerontologist examination has been used to describe the biomedical boundaries of culture and ageing (Schoenberg et al 2005).
In the United States, the link between biomedicine, ageism, and culture is centred on the dietary and physical needs of the ageing population. Currently, the United States ageing population is increasing older, with more of the male and female population reaching ages into their late nineties. This places increased importance on health in the older age groups, where gender, age, obesity, fat distribution, and diet are common correlates of high blood pressure (BP) (Fitton 2005). In Amazonia, the general ‘aged’ population exists between the ages of 21-49, and high blood pressure, as an example of medical necessity, is not based on the traditional diet, but likely caused by external environment pressure (Fitton 2005).

Amazonian Communities

Lori J. Fitton (2005) explored the relationship between culture, ageing, and blood pressure in the Amazonian communities of Cof´an of Ecuador, focusing on the traditional tribal communities of Dureno and Zabalo. Fitton (2005) explored the medical ethnography through the lifestyle variables and cardiovascular risk factors among sex-specific age cohorts in Amazon populations. Her (Fitton 2005) findings were that, unlike the modernist ideals of ageing in the United States, the isolated Amazonian groups have been reduced by land, pollution, and common infectious diseases. More importantly, however, the traditional tribal communities are under constant pressure to matriculate into the modernist societies of Ecuador. High blood pressure, as a medical concern, is not derived from the Amazonian diet, but rather from the stress of resisting social and cultural change (Fitton 2005).
The social practices of traditional Amazonian tribes are likely the reason dietary activities are not the focus of medical concerns in the ageing population. Though there has been some indication that the traditional tribes of the Cof´an are consuming more Western foods with increased salt, their social welfare is still highly integrated with their meals. Gardening, hunting and fishing are all important parts of the subsistence lifestyle, and, importantly all members, even the aged, participate in the growing and gathering of foodstuffs (Fitton 2005). This contrasts to the United States, where the ‘breadwinner’ of the family faces role reduction and social isolation once they retire. The aged Amazonian still has a significant and functional role in the social village in gardening and gathering, and thus does not face the same role reduction that many United States retirees are subjected too, and the aged villager is not socially isolated from the village. The aged Cof’an villager maintains their contemporary value orientation as a food gatherer, and there is little resource competition.

Pressures on Ageing Amazonians

The ageing members of Amazonian Cof’an tribes experience stronger familial and cultural pressures. First, as Fitton (2005) notes, age in the indigenous tribes is relative to their familial position, rather than physical age. Many of the Cof’an area persons do not have recorded ages earlier than 50 years, when missionaries came and began recording their births, and thus it becomes impossible to determine the specifics of older age groups. Therefore, as opposed to the United States quantification method of ageing, such as retirement at 65 followed by eventual induction into a medical or retirement care facility. Again, these Western ideals of ageism are varied from the Amazonian indigenous people’s ideals of ageism. In the Cof’an tribes, the older individual is regarded as the leader and provider (Fitton 2005). “They are the ‘sandwich generation,’ in the prime of their life, striving to provide for their families and struggling between traditional values and a changing culture” (Fitton p 175 2005).
The societal and cultural stress placed on the older population indigenous peoples is reduced only when the tribes are “moving further into the rainforest Zabalo individuals removed themselves from many of the social and environmental stressors that face Dureno residents, and second, by returning to somewhat of a traditional lifestyle, the Zabalo Cof´an appear to be reaffirming their cultural identity and regaining a sense of control over their lives, thus reducing the effects psychological stress has on their health” (Fitton p 175 2005). This shows another conflict between United States ageism and Amazonian ageism, where in the United States, it seems to be a widening ‘generation gap’ and thus, possibly in preparation for the aged person’s death, disengagement from the social roles and cultural stimulation occurs. Yet, for the indigenous people, and likely because their traditional teachings are being subverted by modernism and corporate influences, the young cling to the traditions and cultures of the old, and entire villages disengage from the influence of the cultural gap.


Fitton’s study was interesting because it reaches a place where few have travelled, directly to the people of the Amazonian area. The social studies of ageing, from Fitton’s (p 177 2005) standpoint “need[s] to acknowledge that cultural revitalization movements, which are occurring among many indigenous groups, are reviving the social roles of older individuals as cultural conservators and revered teachers and in all likelihood helping to improve their overall health status.” The influence of the ageing indigenous people is not lost on the young, instead it is embraced and cherished. The question then becomes, in the United States, do our older generations disengage from society because we {as the younger generation) no longer embrace their traditions, values, and histories? If there is a relationship between the lifestyle and health of the indigenous Amazonians because they maintain role functionality and value, perhaps this is a cultural aspect that America can model after—to engage meaning, rather than disengage values.


  • Fitton, Lori J. (2005) Aging In Amazonia: Blood Pressure And Culture Change Among The Cofán Of Ecuador. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Gerontology; Jun2005, Vol. 20 Issue 2, P159-179, 21p, 6 Charts
  • Hendricks, Jon; Palmore, Erdman B; Branch, Laurence; Harris, Diana K. (2005) Societal Ageism Encyclopedia of Ageism; 2005, p292-297, 6p
  • Schoenberg, Nancy E.;, Lewis, Denise C.; Palmore, Erdman B.; Branch, Laurence; Harris, Diana K. (2005) Cross-Cultural Ageism. Encyclopedia of Ageism; 2005, p87-92, 6p