I’ll take care of you when you are old

This July, my parents came to visit and stayed with me in Singapore for almost a month. During their stay, besides spending as much time as possible with them after office hours, I took several days off to accompany them. I enjoy the time with my parents, but I also see it as my responsibility to take good care of them. Like many Chinese born in the 1980s, I am the only child. As they have aged, I have gradually felt the pressure increase. There are several factors that contribute to the elderly care challenge faced by the first generation single children.

First, it is built into Chinese traditions and culture that children respect their parents and take care of them when they are old. There is a saying in Chinese – “rearing children for the old age.” Family is the most important social unit and in generation after generation, care is passed down and reciprocated within these units.

Also, the elderly-care system in China is not well-established. According to a report by the China National Committee on Ageing, China will have 202 million elderly people by the end of 2013. However, beds in nursing homes amounted to only 3.9 million in 2012, with 20.5 beds per thousand senior citizens.

In addition, because of urbanization the traditional community where neighbors provide social support to each other has gradually disappeared. When I was young, I used to play with kids in the neighborhood. But nowadays, we all live in “boxes”; neighbors have become strangers, and social support has eroded.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Well, talented employees are also family members. Leaders’ support to manage the work-family boundary in different ways benefits not only employees but also organizations.  Research has shown that when managers are supportive of employees’ family roles it yields positive outcomes across family, work, health and safety.  However, when we talk about work and family, the word “family” often refers to spouses and children. For example, many companies provide child-care leave but much less provide elderly-care leave. The point is, the support that one needs to provide for the old should not be underestimated. Like children, the elderly need financial support and emotional support. [tweet this] In addition, they need special care when they are sick.

In China, the pension covers only about 30% of the elderly population; for the rest, family (children in most cases) is the main source of financial support. With the cost of living increasing, such financial support can be substantial, especially if the old get sick. Care for the sick elderly is primarily the responsibility of the children, too. I remember my grandma stayed in bed for a year before she passed away. During that year, her daughter-in-law, a housewife, took care of her almost full time; her son and daughter also took turns staying with her. It was a physically exhausting and emotionally draining year for everyone.

I am grateful that my parents are healthy and have a stable income, but that doesn’t mean that my responsibilities go away. I am available almost 24/7 for their calls or messages (I set this up in case of emergencies).  I visit them at least once a year and they come to stay with me every 2-3 years.  At some point, they will depend on me more, just as at one point I depended more on them.

The effort needed to take care of the elderly is not less than, if not more than, what is needed to take care of young kids.  Hence, when designing family-friendly policies, organizations need to consider employees’ elderly-care responsibility. Leaders should also support those employees who have elderly-care responsibility. As employees, we should also show empathy to our colleagues who have sick parent(s) at home.

What is the elderly-care situation in your family? What type(s) of support do you provide to your parents, parents-in-law, or grandparents? What is the implication of elderly care for leadership? Please share your points of view with me.


About Sophia Zhao

Sophia Zhao is a research faculty member at the Center for Creative leadership. She is based in the Asia-Pacific campus in Singapore. Her main responsibility is to carry out research from and for the region. She has published research reports on such topics as senior leadership, womens leadership, and succession management. She received a B.A. from Fudan University and a Ph.D. from National University of Singapore.
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16 Responses to I’ll take care of you when you are old

  1. avatar Anand Chandrasekar says:

    Reading this as a person with childcare responsibilities and upcoming eldercare responsibilities, I find this is an extremely well-written and thought provoking post.

    I have noticed that Indian insurance companies have policies that allow you to buy a “family policy” that includes 3 generations – parents, yourself and your children. I haven’t seen such a policy in other countries yet..

    The connections that you make to leadership and implications for companies are indeed there, but haven’t been acted on. Old age is often referred to as the second childhood and eldercare can teach us a lot of things. Let me make 2 connects here.

    First, this make me hypothesize (without any evidence), if those who have eldercare responsibilities are more likely to prioritize employee development. Second, caring for elders would be a great way to develop your skills to “influence without authority”

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Thank you for your insight, Anand. The family insurance policy is a great idea and it shows the importance of doing business in context. I also agree with you that taking care of, or simply getting along with, the elder is precious experience that we can learn lessons from. I’d love to hear more about the rationale behind your hypotheses.

  2. avatar Shabnam Manan says:

    Thanks for writing this because it’s something close to my heart. Have a bed ridden elderly parent with staying me and my mornings are usually spent showering him with my helper before heading to work. He is also suffering from a little dementia and can be a challenge.

    Nevertheless, i am happy to have had the opportunity to care for him and inspite of the challenges, i will have it no other way. CCL has been extremely accomodating to my situation which makes a real difference in how i manage my time.

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Hi, Shabnam, I’m sorry to hear about your father. I can understand how you feel because in my mind, it’s never a question who should take care of my parents. And yes, organizational support is very important, and that’s one of the key messages I wanted to send.

  3. avatar Chris Yap says:

    One of the few truly Asian focused research. The “responsibility”‘of elderly care is certainly a concept that’s rather foreign in the west. Highlighting it as a challenge for the generation born in the 80′s (or even 70′s) really hit the bull’s eye for me. It dawned on me that my parents never had to worry about their parents’ medical expenses eventhough there was no insurance coverage because they both had at least 8 other siblings to share the cost. For China specifically, it reverses the 4:1 ratio around. Each family will then have 4 elderly to be taken care of.

    From an organization’s perspective, it definitely has an impact on talent mobility. Will this then results in the trend for Asian organizations to expose talents on international assignment or job rotation earlier. As the parents aged, the need to be close to home to take on the elderly care responsibility will then, be more crucial. While companies would provision for the children’s education when sending a talent for international assignment, I wonder if any of them thought of provisioning for elderly care. Looks like, yet again, this is probably a concept that has to be driven out of Asia.

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Chris, you have a very good point regarding organizational practice. We’ve seen big companies pay for expatriates’ child care but rarely elder care. Maybe it’s time that organizations and leaders start to think about it.
      The challenge of elder care is not only faced by those working overseas. Even within China, or India, or other developing countries, young generation often make their living in several big cities that are far away from their hometown and visit their parents once a year. It’s a sad thing for both generations, I would say.

  4. avatar Maw-Der Foo says:

    great post! Thanks for sharing. Hopefully companies embrace a broader definition of family friendly policies to encompass parents and significant relatives. With the aging population, smaller family units, erosion of the traditional “kampung spirit,” and globalization (where kids are often based in different countries) such issues are coming to the forefront.

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Thanks, Maw Der. I’m glad that it resonates with you as well. It seems that the whole Asia is facing such paradox, thanks to the economic development. I don’t think we can stop the trend (that people leave home and travel), but I do think we can improve the situation.

  5. Thank you for this insightful post. The elder care issue that you describe is similar to that of Latin America. You just motivated me to bring my mother from Venezuela to visit my family in Singapore.

    I wonder what more we can do as leaders to address the unique needs of our employees who are facing the responsibility of taking care of aging parents, beyond flex-time, sabbatical and part-time employment.

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Hi, Victor, yes, you should bring her to Singapore! After spending some time together, my parents and I have more common topics now. I can tell them where I went and they would go: “Oh, yes, we’ve been there and we saw this and that…”
      I think the most important thing an individual leader can do is to provide support and be a role model. However, broadly speaking, there is so much more to do…for example, more should be invested in the eldercare industry, which is not only health care but provide other service like counseling and community building.

  6. avatar John Hamann says:

    You have expressed concerns that I have been thinking about for some time. I worked in the “eldercare industry” here in the United States. Being a medical professional working in a non medical job I was alarmed at the lack of compassion shown by my bosses toward their elderly clients and the employees that cared for them. It became very clear to me that the head office leadership saw the facilities they managed as” cash cows”. The commitment to the patient was necessary window dressing and while they used terms like ” integrity” and “community” were disingenuous cliches used to hide their real intent.

  7. avatar Doug Riddle says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t see this post when it first came out, XiuXi. This is such an important topic and touches on issues that are affecting us across the world. I think the Chinese tradition has lessons that will become more necessary in the west in the years to come. My wife and I have been in conversation for the last year or so about how to adapt our living situation to accommodate our remaining parents in a more interdependent way. This was a good reminder.

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Hi, Doug, thank you for your comments. Yes, the Chinese culture, or maybe the tradition over Asia, emphasize respecting and taking care of the elderly. But I’m also concerned that parts of the tradition are fading as the economy grows. You and your wife are very kind and you are blessed to have the company of healthy parents.

  8. avatar Kevin O'Gorman says:

    Hi Sophia:

    It’s so great to get cross-cultural perspectives. I spent quite a bit of time in Singapore and China. I appreciate your view and experience on this. It fits with my friends experience.

    My parents, Irish-Americans, are in their 80s (I was born in the 50s). Their ideas of independence, family and social support were fused, respectively, from American freedom, Irish clanism, and the Great Depression. They blended this to make sure they had the means to take care of themselves (frugal and healthy living), and to be taken care of, by institutions (a blend of church, investments and insurance) without relying on their children — or government. This has created a situation where we, as their (three) children, are now free to extend whatever they need without it being fueled and pushed by economic deficits and social pressures. It’s been a great lesson (with lots of gratitude) for us growing up in a more consumer/me generation.

    My wife, who is Asian-American — and the oldest daughter — is caught between two cultures. So is her surviving parent, who was born in the US and wonders which child will take care of her — and, again healthy and in here 80s, can take care of herself.

    To me, one of the best parts of globalization is adding more options and leveling the morality of a cultural imperative (which may have been generated more out of utility than philosophy) around which is best. Many approaches can work.

    I appreciate you sharing and opening up the conversation.

    All the best,

    • avatar Sophia Zhao says:

      Hi, Kevin,

      Thank you also for sharing your story. What you said about your parents also fits with what I heard from other friends. You and your wife’s experience also triggers a lot of thinking. I agree with you that there are may approaches. Maybe Asians follow the Eastern rule that “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like them to do to you.” and Westerners follow the Western rule that “treat others as you wish to be treated.” I think either way works.

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