2012 Student-Faculty Fellows Program Report: Colby College
Redefining Old Age and Eldercare: Stories from China
Mentor: Hong Zhang
Students: Petya Andreeva, Bette Ha, Eliza Laamoon, Fiona Masland, Jennifer Tsang
Five Colby College students and their mentor spent three weeks in China examining new trends in aging experiences and eldercare patterns. Although a highly collaborative project, each student conducted her own particular research. Together we sought to discover what services have been developed at the community level for an increasingly aging population; why public parks have become a popular place for urban retirees to spend time in; how rural elderly cope with old age compared to their urban counterparts, given they are less likely to have pensions and more likely to have children who have migrated to other areas to seek employment and better opportunities in life; what roles NGOs have begun to play in eldercare and what challenges they face; and why some elderly are moving to residential facilities for eldercare and how these facilities compare, one to the other.
Altogether we visited seven community centers, six eldercare facilities, six parks, four NGOs who specialize in eldercare services in Beijing and Shanghai, and one rural village in Hebei province. We also conducted and collected data from 140 interviews. Some of our preliminary findings suggest the following: 1) Neighborhood community centers currently offer an array of recreational activities for active and healthy urban retirees, and some are exploring new ways of providing community-based support for elderly citizens who have dementia or need assistance in recovering from surgery or stroke. 2) Our visits in rural Hebei reveal that youth migration in this area is localized, and that most elderly seem satisfied with their current life. 3) Our interviews in parks and community centers show that many parents still think that the cultural adage of “raising children against old age” is valid, but at the same time, they seek to maintain good health as long as possible and to save their resources so they need not depend too much on their children. 4) Both middle-aged and elderly parents wish to remain independent as long as their health allows, and if their health fails, are inclined to choose residential care rather than imposing upon their children by co-residing with them.
The focus of my independent research in this team project is titled “New Developments in Community-Based Eldercare Services in China.” Before participating in this research project, I had already completed four years of Chinese language study and been in China and Hong Kong three times. However, the ASIANetwork Freeman grant program and the work of Professor Zhang provided me with greater access to eldercare facilities and community centers than previously possible when I was engaged in researching the same topic while in Beijing the year before. My most important discovery has been the growing collaboration between NGOs and community centers to ensure that an abundance of resources and activities are available for older persons. Often it is the NGOs that provide the funding and planning to provide activities and programs for the elderly, but the community centers provide the physical space needed to carry out these projects. Activities depend on the median age of residents and the needs of the community, but they can range from chorus singing to dance and modeling lessons, to specialized services in daycare centers for people near the end of their lives.
My independent research for this group project focuses on the “The Challenges Facing the Rural Elderly and New Coping Strategies.” My study was informed by a weekend visit to the rural area of Botou township in Hebei Province where I was able to interview several elderly residents, visit the director of a rather large (100 residents) municipal elder home, whose fees and healthcare expenses are all met by the government because the applicants are childless, and observe a traditional funeral in process. Botou is a small town of about 1100 people which has about 100 villagers who are between sixty and seventy and only a few over eighty. The elderly in this village were remarkably open and willing to converse with younger visitors from North America. We discussed with them their views about family, the importance of filial piety, and the challenges they face financially, regarding housing and healthcare, and also the infrequent return of children who work in the city to visit them. We discovered that 95% of young people in Botou find wage labor in the township close by, but despite the proximity of the two communities, they live in apartments outside the village. Young sons usually insist on having their parents live with them, but the elderly prefer not to, because the potential duties of baby-sitting and childcare can be quite daunting. Most of the elderly seemed content with their current conditions and expressed gratitude that once they reach retirement age they will receive a modest monthly 55 yuan pension from the government.
The topic of my research is titled “Embracing Age with Dance, Tai Chi, and Peers in Urban China.” My study focuses on how changing eldercare norms in China’s cities have led aging parents to live independently and actively work to create their own social networks. It shows that the elderly have accepted this pattern because they hope not to become a burden upon their children. As independent elderly persons, Chinese often turn to public parks to join social groups, pursue hobbies such as tai chi, dancing, and singing. These groups might be quite small and intimate but there are also large groups that require their leaders to converse using a microphone. Often married couples separate for an afternoon as each goes to a different park to pursue a different hobby.
My research in China focuses upon the growing role of non-governmental organizations in the field of elder care and is titled “Social Innovations and Service Delivery for the Elderly: ‘Partnership’ between Government and NGOs.” I visited a wide variety of organizations from those which only provide cultural activities for active seniors to centers that provide full services for elderly citizens suffering from dementia. I also studied the close relationship between the Chinese government which provides the funds, and NGOs which provide services for the elderly. My research was also informed by a summer internship I held during the summer of 2011 for an NGO in Beijing.
My research concentrated upon specific types of elderly homes: government-run, community-run, and privately-run, and is titled “Changing Attitudes toward Institutional Care in China.” It confirms that the emergence of and variations within these institutions reflect the changing views of Chinese toward elder care. I visited a wide range of residential homes in both Beijing and Shanghai, interviewed the residents of these homes and, where feasible, their directors as well. This study shows that there is a wide range of reasons why individuals choose to reside in elder care homes, including: physical or mental health concerns, seeking to live somewhat independently, and the desire not to become a financial or other burden upon one’s children. It also suggests that the government-run homes offer more activities and services than the other types, but this does not mean that those living in community-run or privately-run homes are less content.