New York Times (July 27, 2011): In China, A More Western Approach to Elder Care

Publication Date: 
Wed, 07/27/2011

In any discussion here about the decision to move an older person into some sort of care facility, we can virtually count on a denunciation in the comments section, often from someone citing immigrant roots. Americans are too self-centered, too careerist, goes the criticism.

“I come originally from Argentina and in my culture we respect and honor the elderly and consider it disgraceful and selfish to put a parent in a nursing home,” Maria Gonzalez from Cleveland wrote last spring.

Dr. Kat Lieu from New York City sounded only slightly less disdainful. “Maybe it’s because I’m an Asian-American, but I never see myself far away from my parents,” she wrote. “They had always been there for me. I will always be there for them.” She’d never consider a nursing home, she vowed.

Of course, it’s demonstrably untrue that Americans by and large are somehow abandoning their parents. The great majority of our older adults don’t live in any kind of institution and aren’t receiving any paid help, but rely, as always, on their families. Most family members aren’t cavalier about the decision to place a family member in assisted living or a nursing home, nor do they walk away after doing so.

I’ve often wondered: Do these attitudes really stem from innate national or cultural differences? Or are they a function of the way different societies operate, in which case those values may alter as societies change?

I found it fascinating, therefore, to learn that homes for the elderly are popping up all over China, where the Confucian principle of “filial piety” has held sway for millennia. Zhanlian Feng, the researcher who just reported his findings on the growing minority populations in American nursing homes, emigrated from China in 1997 to do graduate work at Brown University, where he now teaches.

At the time he left his homeland, the old ways still held.