Sao Paulo is a big city—the largest in Brazil and one of the largest in the world. From my point of view, it’s not particularly pretty, but it is alive with energy. On the weekend, I went to Parque Iberapuera, their equivalent of Central Park. Like most parks on a Saturday afternoon, it was filled with people of all ages, walking or jogging, enjoying this lovely oasis in the middle of tall buildings and endless residential streets.
I got to thinking about the culture here and how it contrasts with Argentina and North America. It is diverse, lyrical and easy-going. Older people seem to be healthy and are mostly still working and living alongside everyone else. There is no particular expectation of retirement. And when people do become unable to work, for whatever reason, they remain part of the community within a tightly knit family structure. I don’t know if there is any particular ‘honoring’ of the elderly, but it is obvious these people have a powerful appreciation and respect for everyone of all ages.
This may be due, in part, to the economic reality of a nation in which there are 180 million people, more than 90% of which lack financial resources beyond minimal subsistence. When people don’t have much in the way of material resources or opportunities, there is a much deeper reliance on others—not only for survival, but also for the intangibles like love, friendship, and the capacity to dream, to laugh and to cry together. I say this to contrast Brazil with our culture—not to romanticize or generalize about the population.
In North America, we have lost a lot of the sense of community and family that is still so prevalent here. The social scientists and cultural pundits give lots of reasons and theories for why this has happened—the Second World War, the automobile, technology, modern corporate diversification, the telephone, and on and on. I think economic prosperity and materialism are decisive factors in our culture. When we live in a world that is essentially about buying and selling things, then it’s easy to be blind to those aspects of life that aren’t ‘things’, the ‘intangibles’ which don’t cost anything and which are all around us.
Admittedly, there is still lots of love and appreciation for family in North America. But when parents are living in the Sun Belt, children are ‘away’ at school or pursuing work wherever the opportunities are, and grandparents are residing in a retirement community, we lose the context of family. We settle for family events, voicemail and ‘managing’ what is needed, and miss out on family solidarity, community and the kind of synergy that comes from really needing each other. We read daily of the loneliness and isolation that comes in late life to many living alone or in nursing homes, assisted living facilities or gated communities.
Activities and material goods are definitely not substitutes for love and caring and feeling known by those around us. Although Brazil may lack many of our culture’s material comforts, the older people here seem to have an abundance of what we lack—very few are lonely.