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Community and Government Support is Critical for Elderly Chinese No Longer Cared for by Family
July 15, 2015

Increased longevity, the one-child policy, and the migration of youth from rural to urban areas are projected to negatively affect the elderly Chinese population, a group that has historically been cared for by children and extended family members. As the children of the one-child policy in China come of age and relocate to urban centers for employment opportunities, parents of these children are often left alone. In some cases, these parents are left permanently alone if a child succumbs to cancer, an accident or other life-ending event. Through these losses, a community of parents, now childless, must come to terms with their grief as well as their lack of family support. Community and government support are critical to older adults in China, as concluded by Rutgers School of Social Work assistant professor Karen Zurlo in her recent research published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Work.

“The kind of family-based support that elderly Chinese have received in the past included arrangements where seniors lived with multiple family generations and benefited greatly from that attention and assistance. With the changes in the makeup of the Chinese family, seniors may no longer have the safety net of family care and connection. In that case, Chinese seniors may need the assistance of community centers and government support to supplement or replace family support,” says Karen Zurlo.

Zurlo attended an international symposium in China in June where she presented a paper on a topic relating the effects of community and public support on depressive symptoms of elderly Chinese. The study, entitled “The Effects of Family, Community, and Public Policy on Depressive Symptoms among Elderly Chinese,” found that significant risk factors for depressive symptoms included the lack of family support (living without a spouse, having fewer family members and relatives, and lack of contact with children), lack of community support (absence of a senior center in the community and not receiving a subsidy), and lack of public support (not receiving a pension and not having medical insurance/welfare).

Historically, the elderly Chinese population has experienced low levels of depressive symptoms and this was thought to be due to family-based arrangements that have traditionally supported the elderly. In this study, traditional family support was still found to be significantly associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms. To assist elderly without families, the emphasis would rest on the Chinese government to play a crucial role in providing community centers to care for the growing senior population.

The study employed the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), a survey of adults in China, which was designed to collect micro-data at the household and community levels. The researchers analyzed the effect of three types of support (family, community and state policy) on depressive symptoms in elderly Chinese. The sample consisted of 5740 adults aged 60 years and older.

Family support is known to protect against depression, and in China, the social norm of filial piety has been a core value to Chinese culture. With the development of the economy and demographic shift toward a larger older adult population over the next two decades, it will be impossible to rely solely on the traditional family support system for elder care. In anticipation of this new reality, two forms of support, namely community support (including community facilities for the elderly, and a community-based subsidy for the elderly) and public support (social welfare policies, such as health insurance and pensions for the elderly), initiated over the last few decades in China may positively assist Chines elderly.

Zurlo's research interests include gerontology, retirement, financial well-being, health, life course development, and social welfare policy. She conducts qualitative and quantitative research on older adults and retirement-related topics in the US and internationally.

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