China law brings attention to pros, cons of caring for aging parent

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With the aging population growing globally, concerns over the elderly care are becoming an important priority.

The issue is especially important in China, where there are currently 185 million people over the age of 60, according to the Associated Press. By 2053, that number will skyrocket to 485 million, or 35 percent of the population.

An "Elderly Rights Law," which took effect on Monday, now requires children to visit or keep in touch with their parents who are 60 and older, in addition to making sure their financial and "spiritual" needs are met, the BBC reported. If children do not comply, they face potential fines, lawsuits or jail time. While the law doesn't state how often the children need to make contact with their parents, it does raise awareness about the need for the younger generation to become caretakers.

"It is mainly to stress the right of elderly people to ask for emotional support ... we want to emphasize there is such a need," Xiao Jinming, a law professor at Shandong University who helped draft the law, told the Associated Press.

Barbara Moscowitz, a geriatric social worker who runs Massachusetts General Hospital's Senior HealthWISE program in Boston, explained that the Chinese law addresses the fact that many elderly people are often isolated and abandoned by their families, especially since Asian societies are changing. While parents traditionally lived with their children when they grew older, this is increasingly not the case.

A CBS News poll in 2009 revealed that 21 percent of Americans have cared or are caring for their parents in some capacity. But, that number might not be high enough. Dr. Jon Lieff, assistant clinical professor at Tufts Medical School in Medford, Mass., pointed out to CBSNews.com that the 85 to 100 age group is growing three times faster than the rest of the population. China especially has made "remarkable strides" in their medical care of the elderly, which has increased their elderly population, he added.

Part of the problem is that while some of the elderly may be frail and living with chronic diseases, they aren't incapacitated to the point where they need constant care in a nursing home. Children do not realize their parents need additional help, whether it is someone to help them clean the house or do groceries.

"Staying home is very hard without support," Moscowitz said. "The kind of support they need is not even a skilled person, but a family person or an aid."

For many elderly living alone at home, they often languish without contact. It's part of the reason why programs like Meals on Wheels are so important. In addition to providing the elderly with a hot meal, these volunteers are often the only human contact these people get.

"Social engagement with anyone certainly gives someone a purpose to get out of bed and answer the door, to see someone and acknowledge someone," Moscowitz pointed out.

Even if the parent is living in a nursing home, visits from younger generations can help. Often times, a person with a condition like congestive heart failure may be placed in the same nursing home as those with dementia. Their environment and conversations aren't as simulating as it should be, Lieff, who was also past president for the American Geriatric Society, argued. Going out to dinner with their family or doing activities with normal-minded people can be a positive aspect of an older person's life. Seeing a grandchild can remind them of their legacy.

However, while younger people visiting the elderly has been shown in studies to have positive effects including decreasing stress-related illness, there also may be some downsides, Lieff said.

While some parents might feel that they are owed care, others may feel that they want to be independent. They feel like a burden if their children are forced to care for them, which floods them with guilt. In fact, Lieff points out, that most elderly are not afraid of being in a nursing home because they think they are going to die there: They fear losing their autonomy.

"They feel like they are going to be treated like cattle," he said. "They are forced to live with a roommate. They live in a small area without many belongings."

Another problem arises if parents and children have a prior negative relationship. Forcing a child to care for a parent, especially when there isn't a positive relationship between them, may lead to more ill-feelings, resentment and more stress.

"Caring for parents is a mixed bag," Lieff admitted.

For this reason, Moscowitz believes America will never mandate visitation between elderly parents and children. She personally believes that creating and fostering the possibilities of visits and helping families find a way to create solutions that help all parties is the better choice.

"If relationships were strained 40 years ago for a lot of important, serious reasons, they may be strained today," Moscowitz said. "An 80 year old is just a 40 year old who has just lived 40 more years."

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