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USC Conference Examines Elder Care in China

Leading scholars from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States convened May 6-7 on the USC campus to discuss the changing role of filial relationships in elder care as a result of the one-child policy’s effects on family structure in China.

June 7, 2010

By Meaghan Hardy

Originally published by USC News on May 13, 2010.

Sponsored by the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, the “Intergenerational Family Support for Chinese Older Adults: New Perspectives on Chinese Culture and Society” conference was a joint project of the USC School of Social Work, the USC Davis School of Gerontology and the USC U.S.-China Institute to provide a look at new research on population aging in China, a major policy issue facing Asian nations in the 21st century.

“China will have one of the world’s oldest populations by mid-century,” noted conference director Iris Chi, who holds the Chinese-American Golden Age Association/Frances Wu Chair for the Chinese Elderly and oversees the School of Social Work’s China program. “Reductions in family size have lessened the availability of adult children, who currently serve as the backbone of the elder-support system.”

Chi said that leaves less time for China to develop the infrastructure necessary to adapt to its aging population and unprecedented societal demands.

“As a social worker, I’m interested in the effect of changing demographics on the well-being of older adults,” said Karen Lincoln, associate professor of social work. “There is a need for a more immediate solution in China, which I think will lead to a lot of innovation [around the world].”

Professor Du Peng, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China, Beijing and Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the USC schools of gerontology and social work, provided an overview of changing policies and trends in elder care in China, as well as current research efforts and models.

He described the changing role of the Chinese government in providing elder care, which at one time was purely the individual’s responsibility.

“The government should not take over [elder care],” he said, “but they should do something to help these people.”

USC economics professor John Strauss presented his work on the first wave of data collecting for the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey. This information pointed toward the increased importance of health insurance in China, as well as the diversity of types of coverage.

“Ninety percent of the elderly are now covered by health insurance,” he said. “This is very, very new. So, we want to know, what does that mean?”

The presented papers reflected not only a range of topics and disciplines, but also a geographic diversity, with papers focused on elder care in mainland China, Taiwan and for Chinese immigrants in the United States. Many papers addressed how outside factors, such as the difficult housing situation in China, can affect governmental policy and individual decision-making.

Jenny Zhan of Georgia State, whose paper addressed the role of family in long-term institutional care, told a story about one elderly woman who had such difficulty climbing the stairs that the elder would often stay upstairs for days or weeks at a time to avoid the climb, or family members would pay people to carry her up the stairs.

“In many cases, when housing situations are difficult, adult children have to put the elder into long-term care,” Zhan said.

Yawen Li, PhD ’09, who presented a paper on the effects of widowhood on family support and quality of life for Chinese elders, emphasized the need to provide more forums for these kinds of discussions.

“It’s nice that I have a chance to reconnect with scholars from USC, the U.S., China and around the world,” she said. “We need to keep seeking out the funding and doing conferences like this.”