When my mom was still alive, my sister and I often visited her in assisted living and later in memory care. Many times, we would be the only outside visitor.
In fact, there were many residents whose family didn’t visit them. Sitting hour-after-hour in the lobby, these aging seniors would watch the front entrance intently. They looked as though they were constantly waiting. Waiting for someone who rarely or never came to visit.
Their waiting and obvious loneliness made me incredibly sad.
Where were their family members? It seemed many adult children simply settled their parent or parents into the care home and then never looked back. They convinced themselves (or tried to convince themselves) that all the needs of their loved one would now be satisfied.
While it’s true the physical needs can most often be fulfilled in a care home, emotional needs may not. Residents in care homes still require advocates in their lives. They desire and need a continual emotional connection to family, friends and others.
What I call the “affection-connection” is important for all humans — no matter the age.
What can be done about the elderly who are disconnected from their families? Can we force adult children to spend more face-to-face time with their aging parents? Can affection for your parents be legislated?
Last year, China tried to do just that by passing a law requiring children to take more financial and spiritual responsibility for their elderly parents or risk being fined or sued. While the law is probably more symbolic than an actual legal threat, it was obviously designed to send a message to the Chinese citizens: Step up and take responsibility for your parents.
Personally, I was surprised to learn that elder neglect is a problem in China. I viewed China as having a deep, engrained respect for the aged. However, these traditional family values are changing, even in this ancient land.
Like much of the world, the population in China is graying, and the country will have an estimated 221 million people over the age of 60 by the year 2015.
China’s policy of limiting families to a single child has had a huge effect on the family structure. With a smaller generation of younger people, there are significantly fewer children to shoulder the care for aging parents. Combine this with the Chinese economy, which has been undergoing explosive economic growth in recent years, pushing many young adults to pursue education in large cities and later lucrative jobs — often requiring long hours — in locale’s often far away from their parents. Finally, most Chinese retirees have a tiny pension, if at all, which means they cannot afford to travel to see their family.
These factors in China lead to an ever growing number of aging, poor and lonely parents. Hence the “Elderly Rights Law,” which made headlines around the world.
I don’t advocate any U.S. laws to force children to visit their parents. But I have to wonder about a society in which adult children will hand off their responsibilities to paid workers at a care home, and then see their parents rarely or not at all.
It’s heartbreaking to see those people waiting in the lobby. Don’t forget, the years roll by and soon that could be you watching the front door and longing for family.