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Caring for the elderly – the Chinese context

A new international PhD project is bringing the University’s expertise in person-centred care for older people into a new cultural context: China.

As people live longer, many countries are struggling with how to care for their elderly, but in China the situation is set to become particularly stark. The concept in Chinese culture of 'xiào' – translated as filial piety – dictates that people owe their elders a duty of care. But changes in society, including rapid urbanisation, have meant that many people no longer live near their parents.

In addition, many families are smaller than in the past as China’s one-child policy, which ran from 1979 to 2015, limited at least half of the population to having only one child. This will dramatically reduce the number of younger people available to support older relatives. 

Chinese elderly lady in a market

The UK has already been through this transition, where care used to be provided within big families, but smaller families and geographical dispersion mean parents now rarely expect care to come from their children. In China, this change is still underway, exacerbated by the one-child policy.

Jan Oyebode
Students gathered on steps
Discussion group

Professor Oyebode has established a new partnership with Professor Liu Yu from China Medical University (CMU) in Shenyang to look at the issues facing those caring for elderly relatives in China, particularly in relation to balancing care and work responsibilities.

“In China, staff loyalty to their employers means they rarely take time off,” explains Professor Oyebode. “Unlike in the UK, where work commitments can suffer due to caring responsibilities, in China, people are more likely to neglect care giving than risk their employment, yet they are still under pressure to find ways to fulfil xiào, placing them in a difficult position.”

Some companies also allow their staff to compress their working week into fewer days, to allow them time to travel back to their parents in rural areas over an extended weekend.

The new project will see Bradford PhD student Oladayo Bifarin carrying out interviews in Shenyang with adults with no siblings, their parents and with those currently juggling work and caring for an elderly parent. He has already carried out focus groups with Chinese students at the University of Bradford, to understand their knowledge and expectations of caring for their parents in later life.

“In the UK focus groups, most people said they were prepared to provide emotional, but not physical care,” says Oladayo. “So, we’ll be looking for similar issues that may come out of the Chinese interviews – and this will point us towards what the potential solutions might be, whether that is an intervention, a resource or training package, to help carers manage their roles more easily.”

This kind of qualitative study is rare in China, which tends to focus on quantitative research. During a visit to CMU to confirm the partnership, Professor Oyebode gave a lecture to introduce students to qualitative research methodology. The Bradford researchers also visited a nursing home and gave lectures to students, care-home managers and nurses on dementia care in the UK and the research conducted at the University.

Oladayo is now working with his supervisors (Dr Liz Breen, Dr Catherine Quinn, and Professor Oyebode) and colleagues at CMU to carry out a literature review of research into caring for the elderly in China, drawing on published articles in both English and Chinese.

This PhD was awarded by the University of Bradford’s International Development Fund, which is funded through the Research England Quality-Related (QR) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) allocation to support research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.

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