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Caring for Elderly Parents in China

Through the Eyes of an American


Oh, you Americans, you just put your parents into an "old people’s home" when they get old. We take care of our parents,

As we were chatting, a Chinese acquaintance of mine touched upon the subject of parent and adult-child relationships. I had heard that statement, or a similar one, countless times before but it has become more personal and sensitive to me since my own mother entered a home as her Alzheimer’s worsened. I smiled as I tried to explain to my friend that many Americans do care about their aging parents and they want the best for them. But oftentimes parents enjoy their independent living and don’t want to be a burden to their children. They may refuse help or resist any kind of move. Of course this is quite contrary to most Chinese parents who think favorably about living with their adult child in the future.

In addition, many American seniors really struggle with giving up driving. They love the freedom to go when and where they want even if they can no longer drive safely. This concept is quite difficult for most Chinese to comprehend; how many 80- or even 70-year-olds do they know who can drive a car?

Yet living among the Chinese for decades I came to deeply appreciate their care for their aging parents.

Values can change and I’ve heard more than one older Chinese urbanite say that they are thankful for a daughter who will probably care more for them than a son would. And others say that some young Chinese do not care for their elderly parents as in times past. However, I still believe from my observations that taking care of the elderly—especially parents—is a value deeply engrained in the Chinese mind and heart. And this deep respect and care for the aging is shown more often in action than words.

How often have I seen this kind of “faithful love in action” among the Chinese? Often. Every morning when the sun would warm up the little park in my residential estate, I saw a man—most likely an adult son—walk with his mother who obviously had suffered a stroke. He walked slowly, very slowly, with her as she dragged one foot and shuffled along. His arm was intertwined with her limp arm providing needed support to her frail body. Her hair was cut short, boyish like, and her face was devoid of emotion and beauty. I couldn’t tell if they talked as I watched them through my fifth floor apartment window. Perhaps she couldn’t talk. Yet it was a picture of love and tenderness based on a maternal bond.

 I know of others who have taken care of invalid parents, grandparents, and even spouses in their homes. Traditional Chinese rarely say “love” in words but their actions show otherwise. One morning in another city an elderly neighbor was hanging up a rag of some kind and mentioned it was for her husband lying in bed. At that moment I realized her husband must be bedridden. I know of another woman who had taken care of her bedridden mother and mentally challenged daughter for years. Some may say such actions are examples of the cultural value labeled filial piety, but I believe there is also a special kind of love based on a sense of commitment. It’s a belief that there exists an inseparable bond—a deep connection. And as a result a child will take care of the parent and care about him/her. A love that shows in action—and even in sacrifice.

I dare not say what care for aging parents is appropriate or right, but from my personal experience living among Chinese and observing their actions, I have been humbled when I realize how often I have lacked respect for the elderly. I have learned more what it means to truly love, care for, and respect those who are aging. And as I reflect upon this, I suppose it has affected me more deeply than I realized. Now living back in the US, I have a part-time job as an activities aide at a nearby nursing home facility. 

For an indepth look at the challenges and changes Chinese families—especially Christian families—face in China today, watch for the 2016 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly due out in early July. 

Image credit: 04329-NM-DSC04940 by neville mars via Flickr.

Joyce Stauffer

Joyce Stauffer lived and worked in various cities in China for over 30 years. She returned to her roots in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania just over a year ago. She juggles various responsibilities and jobs as she continues to adjust to life in the USA. And she blogs at joycestauffer.com.  View Full Bio