science | April 02, 2013

We Need To Value Our Elderly: Jared Diamond at National Geographic Live

Measured on the time scale of human evolution, science speaker Jared Diamond says that people were living in traditional societies until virtually yesterday. That's why his most recent New York Times bestselling book is titled The World Until Yesterday. And, it's why he argues that we have a great deal to learn from these societies even today.
In his talk at National Geographic Live, Diamond unpacked the key themes from his book, focusing on one chapter in particular: the aging process.

As he told the packed audience, we're getting a lot of things wrong when it comes to the care of our elderly in society today. "The lives of the elderly constitute a disaster area of modern society," he argues. "We can surely do better by learning from the lives of the elderly in traditional societies." Diamond, who is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, has seen the way these traditional societies treat their elderly first hand. In some hunter-gatherer societies, where they are forced to continually shift camps, the provisions simply do not exist to continue to care for older people who are not able-bodied, contributing members of the group. While it seems cruel to us here in modern society to simply abandon or cease caring for the elderly, Diamond notes that we face similar choices here when we have to decide on medical care for our aging spouses and relatives.

On a more positive note, however, he also says that societies in New Guinea are actually more devoted to the care of their elderly than we are in modern society. In fact, he argues that he hasn't seen a Western society as devoted as they are in terms of caring for aging populations. These societies place great value on the elderly, because they have a wealth of valuable experience and knowledge to pass on to younger generations. This is especially true in non-literate traditional societies where the wisdom imparted by older community members can literally be the difference between life and death. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author urges us to reconsider how we view and treat the elderly in modern society. Since there are so many of them living here today—with many more to come as the baby boom ages and life expectancy increases—it is crucial that we take the lessons of other societies seriously and place a higher value on the more experienced part of the population.