for the Elderly - Greek Style
Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus
Lately there has been an increasing discussion lamenting the lack of care
and respect children and young people in general are showing to the elderly.
I don’t think this is exactly something new; the problem has been
discussed in various degrees by every generation notably save one. During
the golden age of Greece, which is still a model for the world, the Greeks
regarded the care of the elderly which they called geroboskia as a sacred
duty , the responsibility rested exclusively with the offspring. As a
matter of fact, Greek law laid down severe penalties for offspring who
omitted to discharge their obligation.
In Delphi, for instance, anyone who failed to look after her or his
parents were liable to be put in irons and thrown in prison.
In Athens those who neglected either their parents or their grandparents
were fined and partially deprived of their citizen rights. There were
no public facilities for the aged - the very idea of an old peoples
home would have been utterly alien to the Greeks.
Though estimating the life expectancy in the Greek world very considerably,
it is likely that it was little more than half the level common in western
society today. Yet despite the brevity of human life, three score and
ten nonetheless considered the proper quote of years defining the elderly
and old age.
In Athens a childless man had two options. He could adopt a male heir
of adult years to whom he would leave the entirety of his estate. In
return, the adopted son would look after him in old age, give him a
proper burial and pay regular visits to his home.
A childless man’s second option was to buy a slave or two and
train them specifically in how to care for the aged. In many instances,
the slaves was also paid for his services and guaranteed a form of security
by the family for the rest of his life. Many a family, not entirely
trusting their childrens concern for them, bought slaves as a kind of
insurance or to put it more kindly as a help to their children in caring
for the parents in old age.
On becoming a member of an Athenian household for whatever purpose,
a slave underwent an initiation ceremony similar to that which a bride
underwent on first entering her new home,. The poems of Homer suggest
that close ties frequently arose between master and slave.
However, to those of us who admire Greek culture for its enlightened
humanism, Greek slavery in any form is a source of considerable disquiet.
Yet we know the vast majority of Greeks from Homer to Aristotle regarded
slavery as an undisputable fact of life. At one time Greece alone had
nearly 400,000 slaves. It is important to appreciate, however, that
slavery was not an absolute condition but one that admitted many different
statues. It included at one end of the scale chattel slaves, those who
in Aristotle’s telling had the same status as “an animate
piece of property” and at the other end those who were bought
to look after the elderly and become part of the family.
However, overall treatment of slaves varied greatly from one household
to the next. Though Athenian slaves were protected by the law against
abuse, it practically was impossible for them to lodge a complaint against
their master since they could not represent themselves in court. Starvation
and flogging were regular punishments for bad behavior. A run away slave
was branded with a hot iron upon capture. If a slave was required to
be a witness in a lawsuit, his or her testimony could be accepted only
under torture. However, as Aristotle notes, when it is known that a
slave is in the household for care and treatment of the elderly, he
or she is given special treatment in any dispute.
The problem of the disabled among the elderly was a special problem
for the Greek and their treatment according to several historians, is
not at all to their humane credit. Physical and discomfort were not
the only burdens that the disabled had to endure. It seems that the
Greeks really expected the disabled to suffer in noble silence, make
as few demands upon society as possible, and remain hidden behind closed
doors since their presence constituted a source of shame and bad luck
both to themselves and society.
Here again, however, the slave is most important since no professional
medical care or nursing homes were available to those who were bed ridden
it was the slave along with the children who tended the needs of the
And now, according to some recent research, comes some rather extraordinary
and surprising information regarding the treatment of the disabled in
ancient Greece: it was discovered that the common Greek donkey had a
special instinct and feeling for the disabled and the young, and the
ancient Greeks used the donkey in the care of the elderly and disabled.
The donkey has an ear for impending danger. He stands by the young and
the elderly to be petted and leaned against. He can be trained to bring
certain items like a chair or a blanket and if there is a danger of
an emergency like the elderly falling down, the donkey through his strong
and raucous voice calls for help. Today there is an organization in
the United States reached through your doctor that advises and provides
donkeys for treatment of the elderly and disabled.