Handbook on Ethical Issues in Aging

By Tanya Fusco Johnson | Go to book overview

3
Ethical Issues in a Religiously Diverse Society

Cromwell Crawford

Prema Mathai-Davis, commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging, is one of the nation's most outstanding practitioners in her field and is the recipient of numerous awards for distinguished service. She holds a doctorate in human development from Harvard University, and among her many accomplishments, she is the founder of the Community Agency for Senior Citizens of Staten Island. In a recent interview, she was asked, "Do you think that your cultural background has played a role in your career as an advocate for the elderly?" Her reply: "I lived with my grandfather in a three-generational household. My value system has played a role in terms of enhancing my awareness of the issues" ( Kripalani, 1993, p. 14).

This interview highlights the fact that issues of aging are more than biological and medical matters; they are social and cultural realities. As a researcher, Prema Mathai-Davis certainly understands the scientific facts of aging; but as a native of India, she interprets these facts from the perspective of the cultural world into which she was born and bred. "Facts" never stand as facts; they are always subject to interpretation. Among the interpretative elements of culture, religion stands out as the most universal and potent.

By "religion" is meant something more than institutional affiliation to some church, mosque, or synagogue. Religion and aging encounter one another on the experiential level. Following Tillich ( 1957), religion may be defined as the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern. That is, whenever a person speaks of the ultimate meaning of his existence, whenever he contemplates absolute duties and obligations, whenever he devotes himself to a cause he deems to be ultimately real, that individual is acting religiously, whether he is aware of it or not.

Ultimate concern is experientially expressed on two levels. First, ultimate

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