Ethnography of Eldercare by Elders in Shanghai, China
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While existing media and policy discourse on aging and caregiving in China is dominated by attention to the burden of elder dependency, this article provides an ethnographic glimpse of the under-recognized role of older adults in providing informal care to the elderly in Chinese society today. The analysis is based on a quantitative survey and ethnographic fieldwork involving participant observation and interviews conducted in a residential area of Shanghai Municipality, the Chinese city with the highest degree of population aging in the nation. Conducted between 2010 and 2014, our research examined whether and how older adults in Shanghai can be considered as not just persons in need of care but also as active contributors of eldercare. While we observed senior aid to the aged occurring both within and outside family households in Shanghai, in this article we focus on elder caregiving within the context of the family, with particular attention to caregiving provided by elders’ spouses. Overall, we found that patterns of eldercare in Shanghai today are much more complex than public discourses dominated by the elder dependency concept might lead one to believe. Our study found that many older adult women and men in Shanghai are making significant contributions to eldercare in the form of both spousal mutual aid and spousal primary caregiving. We further found several ways in which the identification of a primary caregiver can be quite complicated in a methodological sense, whether in quantitative or qualitative research. We conclude that more careful scholarly and policy attention to older adults’ contributions is needed to better understand and address the challenges and potentials of China’s aging society.
KeywordsChina Eldercare Productive ageing Ethnography
Support for this project was provided by a Fulbright China Studies Senior Scholars Research Award #1083 granted to the first author and by grants from the University of Vermont and Case Western Reserve University awarded to both authors. The project was facilitated by scholarly affiliation with the Fudan-Harvard Medical Anthropology Research Collaborative in the Sociology Department at Fudan University, and by logistical support by the Shanghai Xintu Center for Health Promotion. Special thanks are due to the first author’s host at Fudan University Dr. Tianshu Pan, to the Fudan University Medical Anthropology Master’s candidates Jinjin Feng, Yan Shen, and Ran Feng who provided research assistance, and to the numerous senior community volunteers who introduced us to family caregivers in their neighborhoods. A draft of this paper was presented by the first author at the Harvard Global Initiative on Caregiving for the Elderly (GICE) Workshop on Aging and Eldercare in Asia, organized by Arthur Kleinman, Ladson Hinton, and Hongtu Chen, in conjunction with the Asia Vision 21 Conference convened by the Fung Global Institute and the Harvard Asia Center in Hong Kong, May 2-4, 2014. A revised version was presented at the Society for East Asian Anthropology Conference in Hong Kong, May 19-22, 2016. Any errors or omissions are the authors’ alone.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Ethical Treatment of Experimental Subjects (Animal and Human)
All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Vermont and Case Western Reserve University.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. All names of research participants used in this article are pseudonyms.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.
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