Friday, August 31, 2012

Here and There Elder Care

This stateside visit I developed a new appreciation for certain amenities, among them elder care, and enriching activities available to women, children and the elderly. I’d like to do a series of entries comparing what is available for these groups in China versus in America.

You’ll note that I do not specifically include men in this list. Men’s enriching activities are pretty much the same across the board, and men have traditionally had more enriching activities than women, children and the elderly. Essentially, men eat, drink, smoke, play cards or chess (checkers, in China), participate in or watch sports… as they have on both sides of the ocean, for several thousand years. Only recently has any society focused on activities promoting the well being and socialization of women, children and the elderly. 

As Chinese society reveres their elders I thought it would be particularly interesting to start with activities and amenities targeting that demographic.

As far as providing essentials (housing and food) for the elderly:

In America there is a choice of options: retirement communities, assisted living, nursing homes for those requiring full time care, Meals on Wheels for shut-ins, homes for special needs patients such as those suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. There is also hospice (at home or in a specially designed facility) for terminally ill patients.

In China, providing those essentials to the elderly is left up to family.

In China, the family bears the brunt of medical and care costs. Only recently has China started a social security system. The government has appealed to its senior citizens to pay in a certain amount, about 300,000 Yuan per person, that will be disbursed to them incrementally. Many elderly (and their family members) see the fallacy of this system and have opted to not pay in. To my knowledge, the Chinese social security system is still in its infancy with workers only now being ‘taxed’, as they are in America.
America has had a social security system in place since 1935 The so-called Boomer Generation, those born between 1946-64, who have paid in their entire working lives are now receiving the benefits of their pay-in under that system. Through the Social Security Administration they also have access to Medicare, Medicaid and that program’s various parts: A, B, and so on.
In addition, surviving spouses continue to receive pension payouts – governmental (including military), career professional or private investment/wealth planning, until their death.
In China, surviving spouses of retirees receive only what their primary breadwinner was able to save. Retired government workers do receive a pension, but once that person dies the pay out stops. If there is a surviving spouse, he or she is left with nothing (NOTE: women do receive a special government compensation regardless of the existence of any spouse death benefit. I will cover that more extensively when I write the entry about women.).  There are no corporate pension payouts because, until very recently, there were no corporations. No such thing as a 401K, IRA – Roth or other, or any other type of employer-sponsored retirement provision.  
While I’m at it, let’s talk about estate planning. In America: the choices are many and varied. In China there is none. For those born prior to 1980, the oldest male child gets everything. Nowadays, with the one child policy, the only child gets everything. If that child is female and the family particularly traditional, all of the family’s wealth will go to her husband. If she is not married and is of marriageable age, it will revert to the next oldest family male (uncle, cousin, nephew, ect). If the family’s offspring is female and not of marriageable age, the family wealth will be held in trust until her marriage by the next oldest family male.
Rumor has it that that is changing, but tradition will most likely bear out for the foreseeable future.    
What about socializing?
In America senior centers are springing up everywhere. The Summit, in Grand Prairie, TX is a fine example of such a center.
The Summit features both indoor and outdoor activities. Outdoor activities include a communal garden, walking paths, landscaped grounds and a man-made lake. There is a well-appointed patio, complete with grill area and concessions stand. The patio is partially shaded. There are benches for those who enjoy sitting out in the sun.
Indoor activities comprise of a variety of sports amenities such as a swimming pool, exercise equipment, basketball, volleyball and pickle ball courts. There is another concession stand/snack bar, a room to play pool and table tennis, several rooms dedicated to conferences and/or classes. Board games, card games and crafts are also available. All of this is prefaced by an attractive lobby, in which armchairs beckon those who wish to sit around and socialize. In addition, The Summit offers lessons in gardening, craft making, cooking and other topics. Members are encouraged to lead these classes. As if that weren’t enough, they offer extra programs, such as wine tasting – complete with dinner, to its members about every three months. Dances are held every other weekend.
In my opinion, The Summit and facilities like it provide seniors an excellent opportunity to socialize and stay fit and active in their community.  
In China, there are no Senior Activity Centers, or anything of that sort. Seniors tend to congregate on the sidewalks and socialize on their own. On any given day you can walk any street and you are likely to find a group of seniors fanning themselves (in the summer) or bundled up (in the winter), sitting around and talking. There are outdoor physical fitness ‘playgrounds’, with exercise equipment that people, not just seniors, can make use of. Oftentimes you see small children playing on this colorful equipment. Many seniors farm small plots of land, if possible. Most take care of their grandchildren, if there are grandchildren to care for. They cook for their children and take care of the home. Most seniors walk or jog for exercise. Elderly women play mah-jongg or cards for entertainment. The men tend more toward checkers.   
Some seniors, discovering talents of each other form acting or music groups. They put on performances in parks, free to whoever happens to be meandering by. While in Chongqing with Gary and Mask we came upon such a group. A woman, regal in posture, with elegantly swept back hair was wowing the crowd with her rendition of Micaela’s heartbreak, from the opera Carmen. I stood transfixed. I have no idea what this woman did for a living, or if she even worked for a living (of course she did: she lived through the Great Leap Forward, when everyone worked!), but if it wasn’t singing/entertaining, her talents were wasted!
That is a picture of me with her, gushing over her performance while the rest of the senior group mills about in the background. Isn’t she beautiful?
Back to comparing, now.       
America has organizations such as AARP and ASA that are active politically, lobbying for senior rights. Their magazines publish articles of interest to that group and membership in such a group promises discounts in travels and entertainment, among other things.
China has no such organizations. To my knowledge, no one has even contemplated founding such an association or any type of publication dedicated to seniors. 
Final comparison: Whereas America has a strong religious foundation and many seniors rely on their church for socialization and enrichment activities, in China there is no officially recognized religion. Thus, socializing and activities conducted by or through a church group is not available to the elderly of China.
Interestingly enough, I’ve found American society ageist to the extreme: by 40 one is considered used up and age 60 is considered downright prehistoric. China reveres their elderly… but do virtually nothing for them.
With all due respect to China and their traditions, I find that America has much more to offer their seniors in the way of enrichment and social activities.
On the other hand though, one major criticism that Americans face is how they distance themselves from their families. It is fairly typical in American society for the nuclear family to establish a household onto itself and leave their parents and grandparents behind. And, while many Americans do care for their elderly relatives, all too often we hear that those relatives are shunted to a home of one type or another. It has become ‘old saw’ to joke about how the elderly are left out of family activity, or that kids complain about a visit to Grandma’s.
Furthermore, people in America tend to disregard their elders when it comes to enrichment activities, choosing instead to focus on the development of their offspring.
Offsping? Who said that?
Child development and enrichment is where we will go next.  

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