The Emotional Needs of Older Adults

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

A 2,500-year-old Confucian ideal may have finally run its course. That ideal is called filial obligation, and it refers to the responsibility that adult children have toward their parents as mandated by their culture. This particularly speaks to parents’ needs in later life.

Filial obligation has been a cornerstone of life in China, Japan, and other Asian countries for centuries. It was basically a given that elders would live with younger family members in multigenerational households, and that the older relatives would assume an important role in family dynamics. But a new law in China is a wake-up call that things clearly have changed.


On July 1, a national statute was instituted that mandates Chinese family members (usually adult children) to attend to the social, emotional, and spiritual needs of elder relatives by visiting them “often.”

How often is “often?” It’s not clear, which is just one of the complaints Chinese citizens have voiced. Another stated concern is that the law is unrealistic given the economic and logistical hardships experienced by many adult children in this country. Almost half of China’s elders live apart from their children – a stunning statistic compared to the way things used to be. This is primarily because hundreds of millions of adult children have migrated from rural areas to cities for jobs, but I suspect a culture change accompanies this trend.

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I also suspect that, sadly, China is not alone in this new struggle. Just last week I wrote about Japan’s elders stealing out of loneliness. And what about the United States? We abandoned the idea of filial obligation long before China or Japan. That’s not to say that there aren’t incredible families out there living in multigenerational households or that there aren’t fantastic caregivers who have given up everything to care for their older loved ones. But they are the exceptions to the rule. In general, we have forgotten the emotional needs of our elders, which include social and spiritual needs as well.

Some say that China’s new law is only an effort to shift the financial burden of caring for elders from the government to families. This may be true, but I still think that making a centuries-old family value a national statute is a powerful way to say, “Hey, remember what your parents did for you? Why don’t you return the favor?”

So call your parents today. Better yet, plan a visit. Ask them how they’re doing, and really listen to their answers. And when they need something – whether it be a ride to the doctor or simply a companion to the movie theater – try seeing the task as a privilege. If you already do this, you are my hero.


Makinen, J. (August 9, 2013). Law on visiting elders in effect. Chicago Tribune (Kindle version).

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