The Importance of Respect for Elders

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This essay explores the dynamics of respecting elders in society. Lack of "Respect" has been identified as the largest problem facing elders across many social strata, defined as emotional/psychological abuse, and has been found to underlie all other forms of oppression faced by seniors. This essay illustrates how a lack of respect towards elders can have inter-generational consequences for all societies.

Submitted: January 10, 2017

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Submitted: January 10, 2017



The Importance of Respect for Elders

Religious doctrines the world over espouse the importance of respecting elders.  Churches, schools, and countless other social groups and institutions perpetuate the values of respecting elders in society.  To understand respect we must look at the meaning of the word.  Respect is commonly perceived or understood as an authoritarian construct which demands blind obedience simply to satisfy one’s desire for dominance over others.  However, the word respect is defined as “A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements” (“Respect”).  This definition speaks to the concept of valuing the experience of elders out of a genuine value of their knowledge.  In reality, rather than valuing the wisdom of our elders, the views of the youth have taken center stage in today’s media.  Treated as senile, frail or otherwise incompetent to think or act independently, elders have become largely ignored and disrespected in modern western society.  Indeed, studies have also shown that elders perceive the loss of respect for older people in society in general as abuse, and that this lack of respect can have wide ranging and detrimental effects on elders in society (Taylor, Killick, O’Brien, Begley, & Carter-Anand, 2014).  

One respondent in a qualitative study that focused on the conceptualization of abuse from the perspective of elders commented that “[Younger people] have a tendency of talking across older people as if there was nothing in here [pointing to head], that just because we have a few wrinkles and might need a stick that this [brain] is completely gone” (Taylor, et al., 2014, p. 229).  Having a grandparent in London, Ontario, Canada who faces such abuse within my own community, this issue is important to me.  In this paper I will illustrate why I believe a significant cultural shift in attitude towards respecting elders is necessary to remedy this issue, as well as to stabilize many other social problems that are connected to respect for elders.  There are many cultural systems already designed for this purpose, such as the concept of Ubuntu which was the main cultural system of government in South Africa before apartheid was imposed.  Ubuntu essentially means “humanness”, a concept which encompasses the values of kindness, respect, sharing, caring, and helpfulness in relation to community, and emphasizes the importance of respect of children towards elders (Gumbo, 2014).  Nelson Mandela for example is widely considered to be “the personification of Ubuntu” (Modise, 2012) by the people of South Africa.With this model, Mandela alleviated decades of abuse of the South African people by re-integrating the Ubuntu ethos into South African Society.

Many experts agree that in order to resolve modern issues arising within society, policies and laws need to be made that prevent abuses from occurring to elders, and strive towards restoring a sense of respect for elders in society (Bonnie & Wallace, 2003).  Accurate research on the levels of elder mistreatment across Canada is also necessary for improved policy formulation.  As is discussed in the book Elder Mistreatment (Bonnie & Wallace, 2003, p. 85 - 86), until a comprehensive national study of elder mistreatment has been carried out the necessary changes in policy cannot be made.  Without such research, policy makers have no way of determining the needs of victims of elder abuse, nor how much money to invest in programs and studies for the prevention of elder abuse.  Sadly, almost a decade later, social policies have been further eroded by a staunch conservative government who is insensitive to the mental health and support services that many seniors require due to their mistreatment, and a comprehensive study has yet to be carried out.  Research which has been done within Canada is far from adequate to highlight the complexity of the needs of the elderly.

A 2012 study by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, in which a series of surveys were conducted on three hundred and thirty-nine people across Canada, found that the majority of the elderly respondents had experienced one or more types of psychological or emotional abuse.  The levels of other abuses, such as financial abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect, were all reported at significantly lower levels.  There was also a noticeable mismatch apparent in reporting abuse and feeling abused: 64% of respondents reported psychological and emotional abuse on scales when tested, but only 36% reported feeling abused (McDonald, 2012).  These findings illustrate that seniors most often experience some form of psychological or emotional abuse and do not report it, most likely because they have accepted the abuse. 

Psychological and emotional abuse has been described by seniors as being the worst, and was found to underpin all other forms of abuse (Taylor, et al., 2014).  Psychological and emotional abuses gradually wear down their self-confidence and demoralize the elderly until they no longer resist and submit to the abuses.  Essentially, they have given up voicing their abuse, even though they are in fact being abused, hence the mismatch in reporting.  As a taxi driver, I heard many examples of these abuses.  Some seniors reported being extorted out of their pension cheques by relatives and others who maintain some position of power in their lives.  Seniors also seek out housing in senior communities due to lower rent costs and the benefit of isolation from younger generations.  Through my work as a taxi driver I often noticed that the apartment buildings in these senior communities are often ill maintained, whether due to a lack of respect for the elderly or reduced rental fees is uncertain.  Grocery stores and other businesses which cater to these senior communities also exploit seniors by purchasing goods that are close to expiring, and selling them at inflated prices in the faith that the seniors who live nearby cannot go elsewhere. 

My own grandmother lives in an apartment complex with a high population of seniors. She struggles daily with many of these issues.  For instance, her apartment is currently in need of repairs.  She has been submitting repair requests for several years to the superintendent of her apartment building.  After seven years of waiting for action, she finally took all her complaint receipts to the head office of the company who owns the buildings, only to discover that they did not have a single work order on file as none had ever been submitted by the superintendent.  During our visits together she serves a tiny coffee cake from the grocery store in her apartment complex.  She pays thirty-five dollars for this cake, yet it could be purchased elsewhere for six dollars.  All I can think of while I eat it and look at the water damaged walls of her apartment and the potential for mold, is the meagre pension cheque she receives and how she shouldn’t be living in such a state, and that she can’t afford the cake I’m eating.  But it’s her custom to serve a guest, and so she must submit to the exploitation she is well aware is being committed against her, because she is forced to either tolerate it or live with the anxiety of failing her loved ones.  I fear her story is not unique.

My paternal grandmother’s experience reminds me that we place too little concern on what elders have to offer us in return.  When she passed away, I found myself wishing I had written down all we had talked about:  her history, her stories about the old days in Germany, of her family business, the old German drinking songs she tried to teach me, and of her trials through the war: escaping Nazi Germany with her brothers and sisters, and coming to Canada; my ancestry, which is now all but forgotten and lost to me.  It is said that “Hindsight is 20/20”, and only in losing what one has always taken for granted does one realize what one has truly lost.  It greatly saddens me to see elders today ignored instead of revered, stuffed away in nursing homes; sedated, secure, out of sight and out of mind.  It is criminal.  They have a wealth of life experience.  They have witnessed the passage of entire eras of culture and technologies come and go.  They possess perspectives and wisdom, skills and abilities which, when they are gone, will be lost arts.  They want to be useful, they want to be helpful.  They want to teach and share all the years of experience they have, not to be shut away and ignored.  As articulated by Avrum Rosensweig, founder of The Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, “Soon we will be the elderly. We need to prepare . . . A positive generational legacy is crucial.  Ours will be incomplete if it does not include great honor and respect for our elderly, and an acceptance of the mistakes we have made in our handling and mismanaging of our seniors” (Rosensweig, A. 2012, May 5).  This reflects the values and aims of the Ubuntu ethos. “A community living according to this mode [Ubuntu] cherishes the wealth of wisdom that emanates from the elders” (Gumbo, 2014).

The lack of respect for elders in western society should not be difficult to remedy if policy makers adopt an Ubuntu ethos with the focus of rebuilding a sense of respect for elders in society.  “Such a community will guide leadership by involving elders.  Such a community will infuse the ideals of Ubuntu as part of education and training for its children.  Thus the education of children will be designed in a way that it promotes . . . values that are based on Ubuntu [humanness]” (Gumbo, 2014).  If we as a society, and if our policy makers adopt an Ubuntu ethos, we can create a society wherein all members could experience self-value and self-worth through the shared respect towards the entire community.



Bonnie, R. J., & Wallace, R. B. (Eds.). (2003). Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America. Washington, D.C.: The National Academic Press.

Gumbo, M. T. (2014). Elders decry the Loss of Ubuntu. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(10), 67-77. doi: 10.5901/mjss.2014.v5n10p67

McDonald, PI. L. (2012). Defining And Measuring Elder Abuse And Neglect – Preparatory Work Required To Measure The Prevalence Of Abuse And Neglect Of Older Adults In Canada ? Overview [Presentation Slides]. Retrieved From Lynn.pdf

Nerenberg, L. (2008). Elder Abuse Prevention: Emerging Trends and Promising Strategies. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

 Respect. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.

Retrieved from

Rosensweig, A. (2012, May 5). We Respect Our iPhones More Than Our Elders. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Taylor, B. J., Killick, C., O’Brien, M., Begley, E., Carter-Anand, J. (2014). Older People’s Conceptualization of Elder Abuse and Neglect. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 26:223-243. doi: 10.1080/08946566.2013.795881

Tim Modise: Ubuntu told by Nelson Mandela. (2012, March 6). YouTube. Retrieved from

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