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Emerging family circumstances influence seniors’ psychology

ZHANG TIAN | 2017-12-07 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Residents participate in a sandbox game at the community recreation center for seniors in Jiaozuo, Henan Province.


In the past few years, the model for supporting the aged has been constantly changing. But due to the persistent influence of traditional values, home-based care remains the preferred form of looking after the elderly in many families.

Family circumstances have a tremendous impact on the psychological health of seniors. For example, research has found that the mental health of seniors who live apart from their offspring—known as elderly “empty-nesters”—is generally worse than that of those who do not.


Emerging family circumstances
With social development, some emerging family circumstances pose challenges to seniors’ psychological health. In this article, we mainly talk about three of these emerging circumstances.
The first circumstance is one in which grandparents raise grandchildren, or “skip-generation” families. There has been plenty of research overseas that has found an obvious negative influence on elderly psychological health.

But, domestic researchers have paid less attention. Some scholars who have studied this issue through interviews found both positive and negative mental states in the elderly. They also found mixed feelings and psychological conditions. These psychologies are impacted by many factors, but family relations are the most critical.

The discrepancies in findings can be attributed to the differing concepts of family in Eastern and Western countries. In the West, independence is a core value, and the elderly do not have to raise adult children or grandchildren according to both laws and moral standards, while Chinese people attach great importance to the concept of family and even the clan. Parents usually rely a lot on their own parents to raise children. Many seniors can find a sense of purpose through this and that’s why they develop a positive psychology.

But still some elders view this negatively. Society and individual families should pay more attention to this phenomenon. Scholars pointed out that the government and society can play a role in improving elderly psychology through economic support, psychological consultation and other means. In addition, healthy family relations can also help the elderly to develop positive psychology.

The second is families who lose their only child. This circumstance is a great hardship for the elderly and takes a special toll on their mental health. Mental problems resulting from this circumstance include anxiety, depression, severe climacteric syndrome or even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Moreover, this situation disrupts family functions. Raising children, one major function of a family, cannot be realized in these families. And also, the economic burden is more severe because of the loss of the child’s income or because of the parents’ inability to work.

After losing their only child, some parents may blame themselves and sink into negative psychologies. Seniors in these families can easily withdraw from social interaction, leading to an imbalance in the social roles they play.

The third is the phenomenon of children who are dependent on their parents. Domestic and Western studies on this issue have reached the same conclusion, namely it impacts both the economic and mental conditions of the elderly.

Nevertheless, some research has found that some seniors are willing to provide for their offspring. In China, even after their children have grown up, parents still view them as members of the family and are willing to offer support. Moreover, children’s dependence on parents will make the latter feel a sense of purpose. This shows that a sense of purpose and respect constitutes a large part of positive psychology in the elderly.

The negative influence of this situation on the elderly mainly comes from two aspects. One is that they worry about their twilight lives. If children cannot even make their own living, how can they support their parents in old age? Thus, it is a burden for the elderly both economically and mentally. The second is that they are concerned about the lives of their children once they are unable to support them due to old age.


Psychological assistance
For seniors in these family circumstances, psychological assistance can be provided in the the following ways.

The first is to enhance their own ability to help themselves. Everyone should be in charge of their own psychological health. Professional teams or communities can help the elderly to grasp basic psychological knowledge to enhance their ability to help themselves.

The second is to improve the ability of other groups to care for the mental health of the elderly. The companionship of family members and other seniors is irreplaceable for the elderly because the sense of loneliness in the absence of family affection is a key source of psychological problems.

Also, community workers play an important role. They have specialized knowledge about the psychologies of the elderly and they have authoritativeness regarding this issue. Volunteers in communities are among the social groups who have the most contact with the elderly. In addition to practical problems, they can also detect seniors’ psychological problems in a timely fashion.
Help from doctors in community health centers and clinics is also valuable. Nowadays, some seniors may reject psychological assistance from professionals because they think psychological problems and mental health carry a stigma.

Hence, professional psychotherapists should be connected with doctors in communities and enhance the ability of community doctors in terms of psychological intervention. Certainly, if there are serious psychological problems, such as suicidal tendencies, professionals should come into play and intervene directly.

The three sources of assistance are interrelated and can be integrated. For example, helping and accompanying friends is an effective way for seniors to help themselves. According to psychological studies, seniors who engage in volunteer work have better mental health and also live longer than those do not. Therefore, helping others and helping oneself complement each other.

In terms of treatment, combining various methods is more effective than relying on a single method. Therefore, mutual aid between seniors, psychological consultation and other means should be integrated.


Future work
In light of these emerging family circumstances—“skip-generation” families, “empty-nest” families and families with children living off their parents—we should never neglect their impact on the mental health of the elderly. Through research and practice, we should explore means to promote the mental health of seniors.

Psychological researchers should study the mechanism of how these emerging family circumstances influence psychological health. Current research mainly focuses on comparative studies between different groups, such as comparisons between families who have lost their only child and those who have not, but there are no studies of how these family conditions influence psychology. Only once we understand the mechanisms, can we know how to solve the problem.

In terms of practice, on the one hand, some elements in Chinese culture can be applied for psychological assistance. As mentioned already, many family circumstances have both positive and negative influence on elderly psychology, while these influences mainly derive from our traditional culture and family values. Therefore, if we learn about how culture and values influence psychology, we can explore a new path for carrying out psychological assistance.

On the other hand, a system for mental health assistance should be built. To address the problem, various perspectives should be combined. For example, the aforementioned three aspects can be combined to form a multi-dimensional assistance system.


Zhang Tian is from the Department of Sociology at the Nanjing University of Science and Technology.