Photo: Professor Barbara Yee from Family and Consumer Sciences Department at University of Hawaii at Manoa delivered a speech about the mental health of Asian elder adults.
Tens of thousands of Chinese come or immigrate to the United States every year, meaning that as many families in China become transnational with member in at least two countries. Because of the long-term and long-distance separation between aging parents and their adult children, some experts in aging say both children and society need to increase support for older parents left in China.
“It is important to do research in the transnational families, since there is an increasing number of international migrants,” said Man Guo, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa School of Social Work, who was one of numerous Chinese experts who presented research at last fall’s meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.
Help for Elders Left Behind
Noting there were 244 million migrants in 2015 worldwide, including a large number of Chinese immigrants, she emphasized, “Transnationalism reshapes relations in these families; parents and their children lack in-person contact because of long distance” Because adults children can no longer provide direct assistance to their parents, “financial support from kids becomes a key source of support,” Guo said.
In her research, Guo interviewed 292 older adults in Beijing of at least age 60 or older with one or more child who moved abroad. For them, regular contact via phone and e-mails became important, but did not replace the practical help possible through in-person contact, so monetary support from the adult children became their most important way to help their parents.
However, she explained, the distance does not cut their sense of family, and some people even have a more intense feeling of filial obligation to their elders. Among the adult children who had moved, Guo found that those better able to maintain a close relationship with their parents tended to be female, married, educated and in good economic condition.
Guo also urged adult children in the United States to have more contact with their parents in China to understand their physical and mental health. In addition, she said, Chinese relevant agencies and communities should provide the necessary support and services for these parents.
‘Model Minority’ Stereotype
Asian Americans have long been viewed as “model minorities,” who are healthy self-sufficient and problem-free. But this stereotype covers up challenges and difficulties facing many older Asian in the United States.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Asian population here jumped by 42.9 percent between 2000 and 2010, tying with Latinos for the highest growth rate. And older Asians increased by 73 percent in that decade.
The myth of Asians as a model minority partly stems from the fact that the U.S. Census used to survey people primarily in English often excluding people with linguistic barriers, said Associate Professor Yuri Jang of the University of Texas, Austin, School of Social Work. Because of that, she said, “It is more difficult for the outside world to understand the real situation of Asian elder adults.”
In addition, said psychology professor Yiwei Chen of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, the U.S. system failed to take the diversity of Asians in the U.S. into account.
She went on, “We also need to consider the history of Asian American immigrants and its impact.” Chen pointed out that more than 80 percent of Chinese elders in the U.S. are foreign born, and 30 percent immigrated to the U.S. after the age of 60.
The stereotype of a model minority puts Asian Americans falsely makes them seem more adaptable than other ethnic groups without revealing that Asian people, like other minorities, has been discriminated against, Chen said. And, she observed, the stereotype also works against Asians getting enough government resources and support.
Chen continued that Chinese elders are more susceptible than even other ethnic groups to depression. Previous studies have shown that although 55 percent of Chinese seniors had at least one symptom of depression, compared with other older people with depression in the U.S. at about 12-20 percent.
"This number is an alert,” she stated. “Elderly people with depression have different levels of education and income. What’s more, personality is also an important factor we need to consider when studying depression."
Asian Elders’ Double Dilemma
The double dilemma of aging and cultural adaptation makes Asian seniors more vulnerable to depression, Chen said. First, cultural adaptation is very stressful, which makes seniors more likely to have health problems as they aging. In past surveys, the proportion of older Chinese who felt stress was higher than for average for U.S. seniors. Three-quarters of Chinese elders who Chen interviewed said they felt life’s stresses, while the average level for older American seniors was just under half.
In a recent discussion of ethnic issues in aging organized by Gerontological Society of America, gerontology professor Barbara Yee of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, agreed with Chen, commenting, "When you see the data, Asians are a more vulnerable group that we have to pay attention to."
Yee called on government agencies to provide more appropriate assistance to Asian seniors and help them raise the awareness about their need to care more about their mental health. At the same time, she said, scholars should pay attention to the diversity of Asian seniors. Yee said because Asian seniors have different characteristics, age and face different problems, scholars should conduct a more detailed analysis and further discussion.
Ke “April” Xu wrote this article for Sing Tao Daily with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.
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