Generations Grapple with Cultural Norms for Elder Care


According to a recent piece in the New York Times, many US families of Asian descent are facing tough choices when it comes to caring for their elderly family members.

“This idea that the younger generation is culturally mandated to take care of their parents is deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture,” says Zhanlian Feng, a senior research analyst at RTI International. But, for the American children of elderly Asian parents, this is often not feasible.

The long-standing Asian tradition of filial piety, or of caring for the elderly at home until death, has eroded: the modern US family is one where both partners work outside the home, many do not live with their extended family and have less free time to care for others outside of the job.

This means that in both the US and Asia, more elderly people are being laced into assisted living or nursing homes. In the US, this brings attention to the need for culturally sensitive care.

Many American care providers struggle with even the basics, e.g. how to address a patient, how to discuss difficult experiences like war trauma and communication expectations around medical care in general. Language barriers present an abvious challenge for elderly patients that long to be in familiar surroundings with elements of their own cultures.

In response to this growing need, Im Ja Choi founded Passi, an organization that trains home health aides who speak a number of Asian languages. The cause is also personal to Ms. Choi. When her own mother developed stomach cancer, she could not bear the thought of “abandoning” her in a nursing home. “That’s the agony of Asian-Americans. They have to work, and their children go to school and their parents remain at home by themselves. They put them in a senior housing complex, and there they are alone,” she said. “I am a proponent for home care because my mother, who everybody predicted wouldn’t live more than two months, lived eight years under my care. That’s living proof.”

Choi is currently working on developing an care facility that focuses specifically on Asian American families. Patients will be able to speak their own language, eat familiar food, receive culturally sensitive counseling and engage in activities tailored to their cultural background.

The challenges Ms. Choi faces along with other children of elderly Asian Americans serve to emphasize the real need for elder care that takes cultural values into consideration, and not just for Asians, but for other immigrant groups as well (the Hispanic community has a similar perspective on the best way to care for aging parents and grandparents).

In your culture, what’s the best way to care for senior members of your family? Do you think culturally sensitive ventures like Ms. Choi’s are viable solutions?