The most recent issues of The Gerontologist (June and August 2015) feature photos I took in 2012 on a trip to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. These strong and beautiful people are descendants of Ghengis Khan and traders on the Silk Road. I was amazed to learn the extent that elders are revered in traditional Kyrgyz society, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and globalization caused rapid economic and cultural change that have not been to the benefit of the older generation.
The Soviet regime brought Kyrgyzstan jobs and education but disrupted traditional life in many ways. Mandatory work for women ceased transmission of handicraft skills. Forced abandonment of nomadic lifestyles put skilled builders of yurt components out of business. The end of Soviet domination closed most factories, and privatization of land and businesses did not stem the economic downslide that resulted in massive unemployment. A large segment of the young male population left for Russia in search of jobs, leaving the elders to tend farms and raise grandchildren.
In past generations elders were the source for problem solving when it came to issues of morality, upbringing, domestic disputes, and arguments between neighbors. Traditional village life taught that a person’s identity depended upon information transmitted by their society. Socialism dictated similar principles, and sharing was valued over individuality. Secular education and globalization have displaced elders from the role of transmitting cultural values. Instead the media has assumed the role of teaching society’s rules, and identities are built more on differences rather than similarities – much like western society. The end result is a generation of elders who are no longer valued or integrated into daily life.
It still is believed that blessings from an elder can influence a person’s life. I experienced this in the Jety Orguz mountains when talking to a bearded shepherd in his 90’s named Kodyr. He was wearing a tall white felt hat and a long, finely embroidered coat called a chepken, and looked like a character created by J.R.R. Tolkien. At a certain point in our discussion he paused and looked at me intently and said, “I am going to give you a blessing.” After the blessing I felt a sense of humility, and all I could do was shake his hand, smile, and thank him.