Dr. Weiguo Zhang, an associate professor of sociology at UTM, conducts research on the well-being of Chinese seniors. Last year, he published a study about how Chinese seniors living in Canada perceive elder abuse. What might be considered as abuse in Western culture is not recognized as such in Chinese culture. Similarly, actions considered disrespectful by the Chinese community may be regarded as completely acceptable in the West.

Zhang focused on seniors who had immigrated to Canada since “ninety-seven percent of Chinese seniors living in Canada are immigrants.” Through his research, he found that “essentially, there is a kind of gap in terms of understanding the abuse – a gap between the official definition of abuse and [the Chinese senior immigrants’] perception of the abuse.”

Zhang explains that Chinese seniors often do not consider behaviours which would be considered abusive in Canada as abuse. They “do not have a problem recognizing physical abuse [and] financial abuse,” however, in regards to “emotional and verbal abuse,” some Chinese seniors might “think it is normal.”

“A woman actually approached me [when I was collecting data] because she knew I was doing this project. [She talked about how] she has some trouble with her son-in-law. She talked a lot about [him] calling [her] names. She doesn’t like that, but she never even thought this is a kind of abuse.”

Zhang also discusses boundaries which are often not clear in Chinese culture. He explains that “in the West, parents and seniors have the right to [engage in] risky behaviours.” For Chinese individuals, children might coerce their parents to stop drinking, smoking, or gambling, and the seniors may believe their rights are being violated.  However, if the children do not take any action at all to prevent their parents engaging in risky behaviours, “then it might be said that children are neglectful.” The boundary between violation of rights and being concerned is “vague.”

Another culturally dependent aspect is respect. In some cultures, “disrespect to older people may be considered a kind of abuse.” For example, in Western culture, referring to seniors by their first names is largely not considered disrespectful. However, in Chinese culture, “you never do that, you call them [by their title].” There is a more nuanced side to the issue of culture and respect since it can also be considered disrespectful when one does not greet seniors.

One of the conclusions of this project “is that through this kind of awareness [and] through discussion amongst themselves, people [can become] more aware of elder abuse so that they can protect their rights.”

The inspiration behind this project stems from a misconception about Chinese culture. “One of the things people believe about Chinese culture is that [since] respecting older people [is a priority,] it seems Chinese seniors don’t have much of a problem. [However,] elder abuse is still very much there.” Although the prevalence is unknown currently, Zhang wants to “really understand how people perceive elder abuse.”

Zhang acknowledges that “in a sense, the situation for Chinese immigrants is better than for those living in China,” since most seniors “who come here as immigrants have a good relationship with their children because many are sponsored by them.” Furthermore, the seniors who are able to immigrate to Canada “are mostly healthier because of Canadian immigration policies.”

Zhang says that Canada is a “pioneer country” in dealing with the elder abuse issue. “The Canadian government is paying attention to this issue [and] there are networks trying to prevent abuse.” Many UN initiatives are also being spearheaded by Canadian scholars.

Going forward, Zhang wants to research the risk factors influencing abuse and focus on prevention. “How do the seniors think is the best practice to prevent abuse?” Furthermore, he also wants to “understand the perception of other immigrant groups such as South Asian and Arabic communities.”

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