This July, my parents came to visit and stayed with me in Singapore for almost a month. During their stay, besides spending as much time as possible with them after office hours, I took several days off to accompany them. I enjoy the time with my parents, but I also see it as my responsibility to take good care of them. Like many Chinese born in the 1980s, I am the only child. As they have aged, I have gradually felt the pressure increase. There are several factors that contribute to the elderly care challenge faced by the first generation single children.

First, it is built into Chinese traditions and culture that children respect their parents and take care of them when they are old. There is a saying in Chinese – “rearing children for the old age.” Family is the most important social unit and in generation after generation, care is passed down and reciprocated within these units.

Also, the elderly-care system in China is not well-established. According to a report by the China National Committee on Ageing, China will have 202 million elderly people by the end of 2013. However, beds in nursing homes amounted to only 3.9 million in 2012, with 20.5 beds per thousand senior citizens.

In addition, because of urbanization the traditional community where neighbors provide social support to each other has gradually disappeared. When I was young, I used to play with kids in the neighborhood. But nowadays, we all live in “boxes”; neighbors have become strangers, and social support has eroded.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Well, talented employees are also family members. Leaders’ support to manage the work-family boundary in different ways benefits not only employees but also organizations.  Research has shown that when managers are supportive of employees’ family roles it yields positive outcomes across family, work, health and safety.  However, when we talk about work and family, the word “family” often refers to spouses and children. For example, many companies provide child-care leave but much less provide elderly-care leave. The point is, the support that one needs to provide for the old should not be underestimated. Like children, the elderly need financial support and emotional support. [tweet this] In addition, they need special care when they are sick.

In China, the pension covers only about 30% of the elderly population; for the rest, family (children in most cases) is the main source of financial support. With the cost of living increasing, such financial support can be substantial, especially if the old get sick. Care for the sick elderly is primarily the responsibility of the children, too. I remember my grandma stayed in bed for a year before she passed away. During that year, her daughter-in-law, a housewife, took care of her almost full time; her son and daughter also took turns staying with her. It was a physically exhausting and emotionally draining year for everyone.

I am grateful that my parents are healthy and have a stable income, but that doesn’t mean that my responsibilities go away. I am available almost 24/7 for their calls or messages (I set this up in case of emergencies).  I visit them at least once a year and they come to stay with me every 2-3 years.  At some point, they will depend on me more, just as at one point I depended more on them.

The effort needed to take care of the elderly is not less than, if not more than, what is needed to take care of young kids.  Hence, when designing family-friendly policies, organizations need to consider employees’ elderly-care responsibility. Leaders should also support those employees who have elderly-care responsibility. As employees, we should also show empathy to our colleagues who have sick parent(s) at home.

What is the elderly-care situation in your family? What type(s) of support do you provide to your parents, parents-in-law, or grandparents? What is the implication of elderly care for leadership? Please share your points of view with me.

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