U-M researcher studies 'grey tide' in China (w/ Video)

March 31, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Deborah Lowry has always liked older people. "They tend to be more comfortable with themselves than younger people are," she said, "and I've always enjoyed hearing about history from someone who's lived through it."

A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research's Population Studies Center, Lowry's other long-time interest is China, where a grey tide is now sweeping the land. More than 100 million Chinese people are 65 and older, and the proportion is expected to increase rapidly, reaching 20 percent of the population by 2025 and more than 30 percent by 2050.

In the future, experts predict with foreboding, one Chinese child may have to care for two parents and four grandparents.

For her doctoral dissertation, Lowry examined the experience of growing old in a rural village where most Chinese elders still live. "It's important to have the elders' subjective perspectives of their needs and expectations as well as objective information about economic development and dependency ratios," she said.

The video will load shortly
An ISR researcher is studying how Chinese families in the country and the city are coping with caring for aging family members

As a sociologist, Lowry is keenly aware of concerns that China's traditional Confucian system of xiao (filial piety) is falling victim to the demands of industrialization and massive rural to urban migration. She also worries that demographic changes resulting from China's rapid fertility decline are placing China's elders in a potentially precarious situation.

But using a mix of focus group interviews and quantitative survey data, Lowry has found that most elders remain confident that their families would be willing and able to care for them in old age. "Tradition and social change aren't necessarily opposed to one another," Lowry said.

She also found that elders felt like they were doing quite well compared to what their lives had been like in previous times.

"Life before was really bitter," a 69-year-old woman told her. "I would buy one water jug to use to bring back wine. Because there was no road, I used my head to carry the jug home. Before, there was only one store. You had to ask a person in order to get sugar, oil and salt. Before everything required manpower to do, but now it's not necessary. There is a road and you can travel by car. Life is much better."

But when they looked around at more fortunate neighbors, their sense of relative deprivation could be sharp. "There was a striking mixture of traditional mud homes and brand new shining tile houses," Lowry said. "And the older people who did not have new homes felt deprived. Refrigerators were also a source of great pride. Many families who owned one showcased them but didn't really use them, storing food in cupboards in the traditional way instead."

An analysis Lowry conducted of 2005 data on more than 1 million mainland China adults in 31 provinces, with ISR sociologist Yu Xie, suggests that socioeconomic status has a growing impact on health differences as age increases. Lowry will present findings from a new analysis of more than 6,000 Chinese men and women ages 65 and older at the annual meeting of the Population Association of American in April. The men and women were interviewed at two different points in time, examining how their experience of being disabled may change depending on external factors such as income and family support as well as personal health limitations.

Later this spring, Lowry will head back to , this time to Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province, near Shanghai, in the southeast. With support from the ISR Population Studies Center, she will conduct a feasibility study for upcoming research on how family, household, and community factors affect how elders cope with late-life chronic illnesses. This feasibility study will lay the groundwork for a pilot project later this fall.

She hopes that insights from the pilot study will improve the content of long-term mixed-methods research that she will eventually conduct in the area. "Of course I want to contribute to general knowledge of aging and health, but I also want to do something that can be helpful in developing interventions of practical value to Chinese families," Lowry said.

Explore further: Joy Luck Club: The health benefits of daughters-in-law

Related Stories

Joy Luck Club: The health benefits of daughters-in-law

July 24, 2008

In a new twist on the Confucian ideal of filial piety, a study finds that the assistance of daughters-in-law – but not their own children – helps mitigate depression among older people in China. This is particularly true ...

Grandparents key to China's expansion

October 26, 2006

Rural China's elders care for grandchildren after parents migrate to urban centers and now a U.S. study finds that is a key factor in China's expansion.

China's 1-child policy could backfire on its elderly

August 28, 2007

China’s efforts to control population growth in the present may cause problems for the county’s senior citizens in the future. This prediction comes from a Saint Louis University School of Medicine researcher who spent ...

Recommended for you

Ancient reptile fossils claw for more attention

September 29, 2016

Newly recovered fossils confirm that Drepanosaurus, a prehistoric cross between a chameleon and an anteater, was a small reptile with a fearsome finger. The second digit of its forelimb sported a massive claw.

Game theory research reveals fragility of common resources

September 29, 2016

New research in game theory shows that people are naturally predisposed to over-use "common-pool resources" such as transportation systems and fisheries even if it risks failure of the system, to the detriment of society ...

Humans may have occupied Southern Cone 14,000 years ago

September 29, 2016

Humans may have occupied the Southern Cone 14,000 years ago, according to a study published September 28, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Gustavo Politis from CONICET and the Universidad Nacional del Centro de ...

Bones found in Roman-era grave in London may be Asian

September 28, 2016

(Phys.org)—A small team of researchers with Durham University, the Museum of London and the British Geological Survey has tentatively established that two skeletons found in a Roman-era grave in London are of Asian origin. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.