For most of us, the importance of social contact is intuitive knowledge. Visiting mom and dad can be challenging in our hectic lives, but let’s face it – we NEED other people. Forming social relationships is a fundamental aspect of human existence. We need our families, our friends, our networks, etc. to give us the emotional support that helps carry us through hard times. Remember the last time you had a really bad day? You probably felt a million times better after venting to a friend.
Recently, a new law that requires people to pay regular visits to their elderly parents went into effect in China. It aims to encourage today’s society to pay more attention to the growing population of elderly people. The official China Daily newspaper reports that this law intends “to protect the lawful rights and interests of parents aged 60 and older, and to carry on the Chinese virtue of filial piety”. The number of elderly parents living alone is increasing fast, while the number of traditional families with several generations living together has decreased dramatically over the years. This issue is most prominent in China, where the number of people aged 60 and above is expected to leap from the current 185 million to 487 million by 2053. Relying on government assistance is not a secure option; therefore, seniors in China have to depend on their families for support. Although financial support is essential, social needs are just as vital to overall well-being. In 2010, an 83-year-old man in Beijing filed a lawsuit against his six children for failing to take care of him. The man said that he was not seeking money, but that he was very lonely. China’s new law serves as reminder that the need for emotional support is legitimate and deserves attention.
Loneliness and social isolation are major health issues. A UCSF study found that people 60 years and older who reported feeling lonely have a 45% increase in their risk for death. Isolated seniors saw a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts. Further negative health implications include higher systolic blood pressure, elevated hormone levels, and less restorative sleep. In various ways, loneliness and isolation are two sides of the same coin. Those who lack social contact with relatives, friends and organizations are more likely to experience loneliness.
The elderly are very vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness due to their diminishing social networks, mobility and income. A UK survey reports that “almost one in five older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbors less than once a week, and just over one in ten are in contact less than once a month”. Tackling this issue will require our collective efforts and consistent community engagement. Though some argue that it is difficult to monitor and it doesn’t take into account the children’s situations, China’s new policy is a step towards the right direction. So when’s the last time you talked to your parents?