Tsimane’ Amerindians of Bolivia believe that the elderly have memory not worse than young people, and quickly learn new things. We are much less likely to perceive seniors this way - note the researchers from Poland and the US following a study of traditional and western communities.
The results of their work have been presented in the "Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Science".
To determine how people from different cultures perceive aging, Dr. Piotr Sorokowski, Dr. Agnieszka Sorokowska and Dr. Tomasz Frąckowiak from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Wrocław, together with Dr. Corinna E. Löckenhoff from Cornell University in Ithaca (US) studied a group of Poles, Americans and Tsimane’ Amerindians representing traditional society. The Tsimane’ live in the jungle, they are forager-farmers. There are approx. 13,000 of them throughout the Amazon scattered in 100 villages near the river Maniqui in the north of Bolivia. Their lives and habits were described by Piotr Sorokowski, Paweł Boski and Joanna Różycka-Tran in the book "Podróże psychologiczne przez kultury świata" ("Psychological travel through the cultures of the world").
During the study, researchers asked a series of questions intended to gauge perceptions of Poles, Americans and the Tsimane’ about younger and older people in various contexts: wisdom, respect (e.g., "whose opinion is more respected?"), satisfaction with life ("who is more satisfied with their life?") or memory ("who is more forgetful?"). Indians were asked, for example,"who would remember a new way to another village?", and Poles and Americans: "who would remember a new way to a store?".
At the same time, researchers showed photographs of faces of people of different ages. In response, respondents pointed to one of the pictures.
As it turned out, while people in Poland and the United States decidedly attribute "good memory" to younger people, Amazonian Tsimane’ often associate it with older people.
It is difficult to clearly interpret the result of this study, noted Dr. Sorokowski in an interview with PAP. He recalled the theory, according to which in illiterate primitive societies older people are repositories of knowledge. "Father or grandfather taught the younger generation how to hunt. Also, older women communicated to the young their knowledge of what was in the past, or what is two villages away. As a result, the social position of such persons is higher and influences the way in which they are treated by others. The stereotype associated with old age in their group is better than with us" - he said.
It is possible that the position of older people in our society, too, was better - until the invention of printing press - suggested study co-author Dr. Tomasz Frąckowiak from the University of Wroclaw. "But this invention, and the possibility of writing history, changed everything. When we want to learn something, we browse the Internet, take a book. The elders are no longer considered a reliable source of knowledge about the world" - he added.
In the study, respondents were also asked who would more quickly learn to operate a new item appearing in the house or hut. Among the Tsimane’, about every second person responded that an older person would learns new things more quickly. "Among the Tsimane’, responses indicating older and younger are distributed more or less half and half. You could say that when it comes to age, the Tsimane’ do not see much difference in this regard. In Poland and the United States, only 4 to 12 percent respondents answered in favour of older people" - commented Dr. Agnieszka Sorokowska.
"Representatives of the Western world - better educated, training their minds, often doing intellectual work - even as they grow old, they often continue to be very fit mentally. And yet we often associate them with unfitness, clumsiness, poor orientation. Why are older Indians perceived by young people as more clever, heving better memory, more able to learn? Perhaps their surroundings do not change as quickly as ours" - wondered Dr. Frąckowiak, working among older people in Poland.
As the psychologist noted, our world - the world of the West, changes extremely fast, and there is a huge gap between what present seniors learned in their youth, and the world that they have to deal with today. "Paradoxically, in old age people have to learn a lot of new things: PIN numbers, using computers, orientation in complex banking procedures" - said Dr. Frąckowiak.
"Is it so much different with Amazonian peoples? - wondered Prof. Sorokowski, who for years has been carrying out field research among traditional populations. - We must remember that the Tsimane’, like other such tribes, live on the edge of two civilizations: Western and traditional. Their lives, as well as access to new, unknown technologies and objects, also changed extremely quickly".
The study also confirmed that all societies - both Western and traditional - look at older women less favourably than at men.
"Status of women in most traditional societies is much lower than the status of men, which can also be clearly seen in Tsimane’. During our research we sometimes found it difficult to talk with local women, because they would come with their husbands and waited for the signal on how to answer" - said Dr. Sorokowski.
Dr. Frąckowiak tried to explain worse perception of women seniors in the society, also clear in Poland and the United States. "Not without significance is the fact that men and women who today are seniors were raised differently. Men were more privileged, more often had leadership roles... Today they are perceived from this perspective, which brings good connotations associated with cognitive abilities, for example better memory" - he said.
Favourable perception of old age by members of one of the tribes does not necessarily mean the rule, according to which older people in traditional societies are aging "better" - noted Dr. Sorokowski. In his view, clarification of this issue requires further research. The psychologist added that among the Tsimane’, generally there are relatively few older people. "Those who reach old age, perhaps are simply healthier and stronger in general. Perhaps that is why these people do not have negative stereotypes associated with old age" - he suggested.
PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Anna Ślązak