Middle Age and Old Age

Except for major political leaders, retirement comes relatively early in China. Women retire at the age of 55 and men at the age of 60. Old age is celebrated symbolically with the eldest person being placed in the center of picture. In the countryside, once an elderly person can no longer function, he is relegated to the level of symbolic status with the day-to-day affairs being managed by his son.

Unlike their rural counterparts, urban married couples, in setting up a household, start by forming a nuclear family. Later, upon the death of one of their parents, the family structure changes to incorporate the living parent. However, this reincorporation does not lead to the elderly parent becoming the head of the family. While an elderly parent is referred to as the head of the family on ceremonial occasions, and given the seat of honor whenever a photograph is taken or a special dinner is cooked, the fact is that he or she is perceived to be an important but, sometimes, burdensome duty.

Elderly persons often lament that, although their physical needs are taken care of, they still do not receive the respect they desire or feel they deserve. Some elderly even talk as if their children have abandoned them. Significantly, fathers complain more often than mothers about the loss of their children's active attention and freely given respect. Observations of elderly parent-offspring interaction found that mothers were, in fact, treated with greater tenderness, attention, and respect than fathers. Obviously, mothers, and not fathers, are able to draw upon the strong intimate child-parent bonds which they established and maintained throughout their life span. Without property and other "resources of power," fathers who took little or no interest in their children's development are unable to command their children and therefore receive only a ritualistic admission of deference and a nominal articulation of love. The new emphasis on the market economy and the value of money will enable some elderly to command respect from their family and strangers.

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