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Cultural thumbprints in caregiving

by Isabel Fawcett

Sociologists and anthropologists have long recognized cultural influences in human behavior. Whether caregivers realize it or not caregiving approaches are rooted in cultural experiences.

Caregiving and "Cultural Thumbprints"

Generally speaking, the word "culture" denotes socially learned or acquired meanings, values and/or behavioral patterns commonplace in a society. In context of caregiving, cultural influences may shape favorable or unfavorable perceptions of long-term care as a viable option for elders.

While long-term care is the correct choice for many caregivers, there are clearly other cultural influences in caregiving approaches. Historically, India, Japan, China, some West Indian and Latin American countries have rejected or strongly resisted long-term care as a viable option for elders. In some cultures, nursing homes represent abandonment of elders just as caregiving of a loved one at home is perceived as honoring one's parents.

One Caregiver's Pride in Hispanic Cultural Influences

At a recent doctor's visit, a nursing assistant who took Mom's vitals asked whether I am was her caregiver. When I said yes, the medical assistant poured out here heart. She shared that she, her brothers, and sisters are trying to instill in each of their children the notion of caring for one's elders.

Every few months, the medical assistant and her siblings rotate caregiving responsibilities for their 84 year-old mother. Grandchildren in the family are required to have some caregiving role, however small. There is also positive role modeling by parents and lots of dinner table discussions about how the adults in the medical assistant's family perceive caring for each successive generation of elders. She mentioned with pride that her Hispanic heritage and upbringing have shaped her caregiving model. By involving her children, nieces, and nephews, she views herself as successfully handing down a cultural tradition to future generations.

The medical assistant's sharing of her own cultural influences is not unlike what I have heard and seen over the years in the caregiving community.

Caregiving Practices: Cultural Kaleidoscope

India. Some extended Indian families contentedly live under one roof. Grandparents occasionally prepare meals for the rest of the family. Sometimes the entire family strolls in grocery store aisles as a clan with adult children and grandchildren in tow.

China. In Chinese culture caring for one's elders is sometimes perceived as a naturally occurring phenomenon--much as the medical assistant might expect her children, nieces and nephews to embrace their roles as the next generation of caregivers.

Japan. As Japan's population continues to age there is increasing reliance on robotic technology, such as exoskeletons and robotic dogs, to fill the gap in elder care services in Japan. In fact, some of this technology may be exported from Japan to the U.S., possibly as soon as 2010.

It should be interesting to see how cultural influences affect the world of caregiving. For example, only time will tell if Japanese elder care assistive technology will change America's caregiving landscape.

Caregivers are invited to stay tuned.