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Caring For The Elderly: Does China Have It Right?

Some of them banned the bra and boogied down at Woodstock. Others still tout the "Madmen" generation as their own. America's older population is living longer and due to escalating numbers, becoming a significant population demographic. According to the Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging, individuals 65 years of age or older numbered 39.6 million in 2009 and that number will most likely hit 72.1 million by 2030.

While some older Americans enjoy a better quality of life than others, this very human statistic still translates into a significant number of people who are living alone, grappling with a variety of medical issues and trying to get by on social security benefits or dwindling savings. Others may find themselves more comfortable financially yet still craving the company of those they love best - their children and grandchildren.

In answer to the universal "You don't write, you don't call" woe and cry of many aging parents, China recently passed an Elderly Rights Law, requiring adult children to stay connected with their parents over 60 years old on a regular basis, in order to meet their financial and spiritual needs. Those found in violation of the law face retribution, ranging from forced visitation to fines and jail time.

While it's unlikely that such a law would ever find its way into the American legal system, many would argue that our elderly population might benefit from it, particularly those living a life of loneliness. The question remains, can a law mandate love and responsibility?

Out of Sight Out of Mind

Past generations in the U.S. as well as China often folded aging parents into their own homes. Multi-family dwellings and multiple-generation households were common place, independent of financial strata or ethnic origin. Cultural mores have since shifted, with many elderly individuals living across town or across the country.

Oftentimes, an older parent's needs are simply not known to their children. Illnesses adversely affecting their daily quality of life, such as arthritis or mild memory loss, may be hidden by aging parents who are fearful of becoming a burden. Others hide their maladies for fear of being placed into nursing homes and losing their independence.

Adult children living a non-stop, 25-hour-a-day lifestyle are sometimes more than happy to turn a blind eye to their parent's problems, particularly if that parent is not a squeaky wheel. Sometimes, bickering between siblings about uneven care or financial support can adversely affect an aging parent's care. An inability to let bygones be bygones may also permeate the current relationship between parent and child, causing chasms to remain insurmountable and feelings of guilt or anger to take the place of love and companionship, making out of sight out of mind, permanently.

The Cost of Living

According to the Social Security Administration, retired workers or their spouses currently receive approximately $1,230 in monthly benefits, which is hardly enough to kick up your heels and enjoy life during the golden years, let alone pay for rent and food. Many of these workers have adult children who are also struggling to get by or saving every penny for a new home or their own children's college education.

For elderly people living at or near the poverty level, isolation may become even more acute when their finances are compromised, with many activities which could assuage their loneliness being expensive. Programs such as Meals on Wheels or food stamps and resources like local libraries can provide a stop-gap of sorts, but still do not take the place of visits from loved ones, or much-needed financial support.

The Cost of Love

No parent is perfect, but chances are yours did the best they could while you were growing up. There's an old saying, "One mother can take care of ten children, but ten children can't take care of one mother." No matter how many miles or bitter words may separate adult children from their aging parents, there are, however, simple gestures which can help to bridge the gap, upping quality of life for everyone involved. Every family dynamic is different, but all families can benefit from these action items:

  • Make a financial plan – If possible, get a sense of your parent's monetary situation before they hit retirement age and work with them to create a 10- to 20-year plan for financial stability.
  • Stay in touch – If you live nearby, create a visitation routine your parent can look forward to and count on, such as Sunday dinner or brunch. If you live far away, create a plan for spending important days together, such as holidays or birthdays. Remember to call if you can't be there so milestones are not left empty, especially wedding anniversaries, if your parent is a widow or widower.
  • Enlist the grandkids – Receiving hand-drawn pictures in the mail or photos via email can do wonders for a grandparent's morale, as can phone calls to simply say hi. Keep your elderly parent in the loop by sharing your life and your children's lives with them.
  • Create a social strategy – Many local institutions offer free or close-to-free programs for the elderly. These include craft workshops at adult daycare centers, concerts at the Y, lectures at the library and gatherings such as pot luck dinners at places of worship. Support your parent's ability to attend these events by keeping a calendar of local events and doing research as to what's available. If mobility is an issue, set up an account at a local car service, keeping their number handy and get to know the drivers. Identify a local hairdresser, nail salon or barber shop your parent can use that is nearby and friendly or find one that makes house calls. Supporting your parent to feel well-groomed and presentable, as well as removing transportation boundaries, will help them to remain active, social and less isolated.
  • Don't wait for tomorrow – Unsaid words can sometimes remain unsaid forever. There is a never a wrong time to say I love you. Simply knowing you are loved can do wonders for an elderly person's quality of life as well as surety of legacy. By simply keeping your relationship with your parent alive, you eliminate the need for elder care laws to be entertained, let alone required.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at

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