Culture Question:

How do Western people treat or take care of their parents when their parents are old?

(posted: April 15, 2011)

There is, of course, a wide range of ways that Western people care for aging parents. In general, there is a stronger emphasis on "independence, individualism and self-reliance" (Rick) in the West than in China. This means that many Western people, as they age, do not want to be a burden to their families, and they want to stay independent as long as they can. They may not want to ask for help even when they need it. According to the Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, Vol. 3 "in the United States, some evidence indicates that younger people expect to provide more support than their elders expect to receive." (p. 108)

There is an image that Western people don't care for their elderly and just shut them up into nursing homes to get them out of the way. This view seems to equate nursing homes with old people being neglected, abandoned and ignored by their children. For many families, putting an aging relative in a nursing home is only done when the family can no longer manage the intensive medical and personal care their ailing relative comes to require. A nursing home can be a better environment for 24/7 care than the family is able to provide. It can be the best choice for the health of an aging loved one.

While there are adult children who neglect their parents once they are in nursing homes, there are also many who visit them regularly (even when that parent has demetia and can no longer recognize them). But the majority of elderly people in the West have never lived in nursing homes. The use of nursing homes is actually going down according to USAToday which reported: " The percentage of people over 75 in nursing homes fell from 9.6% in 1985 to 6.4% in 2004, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute." (Block)

Many adult children care for their aging parents with the help of things like supervised adult day care. Other aging parents who can still manage some of their own care are living in assisted living facilities that may do things like meal preparation and laundry for a senior, assisting them in staying as indepedent as they can.

According to USAToday "These alternatives are usually less expensive than nursing homes and often provide a superior quality of life." (Block)

When adult children and their parents live in different cities it can make caring for an aging parent a difficult challenge. Even China, with its more family-focused culture, is facing this challenge more and more often.

In the West, sometimes an adult child who has an aging parent who lives far away will move the parent so that the parent can live with them and they can provide care. My sister and her husband did this with his mother. They moved her from her city 800km away and looked after her in their home for over 10 years until her medical needs became too great. As with many in the West, they moved her into a nursing home when they could no longer provide adequate care for her themselves. And they continued to visit her there regularly to the end of her days.


  1. Block, Sandra. USAToday, “ Elder care shifting away from nursing homes”, Feb. 1, 2008. ( money/perfi/eldercare/2007-06-24-elder-care-costs_N.htm ), 15-Apr-2011.

  2. Rick. Advanta Home Care. “East vs West: How we Treat Our Elderly.” ( ), 15-Apr-2011.

  3. Spielberger, Charles Donald. Encylopedia of Applied Psychology, Vol. 3. “Age Culture and Social Relations”, (Academic Press, 2004) p. 108.

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Picture of an elderly hand in two other hands

Further Reading:

Decisions about aging parents revive conflicts in adult siblings – USAToday article

Helping Aging Parents – from the Michigan Office of Services to Seniors