Newswise — Elderly immigrants often rely heavily on family members for their daily needs – but in the wrong type of family, this can put them at greater risk of financial, physical or other forms of abuse, a Rutgers-led study finds.

The study, published in The American Journal of Geriatrics Society, reviewed the experiences of older Chinese-American immigrants, but its findings may have implications for other immigrant communities that share similar values of close family bonds and filial piety, or respect for and service to elders, said lead researcher Mengting Li, a faculty member in Rutgers University’s Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research and School of Nursing.

“Older members of immigrant communities are often deeply dependent on their families due to cultural or language barriers that make it harder to connect with social services. That isolation, combined with the burdens their children experience as caregivers, may create greater risks of elder abuse,” Li said. “Interventions that identify these risks and, where possible, promote care and harmony within immigrant families, should be based on understanding the unique cultural influences that affect family dynamics.”

The researchers surveyed 3,157 Chinese-American immigrants whose mean age was 73, and of whom 15 percent reported experiencing some form of elder abuse.  They identified four family types, characterized by their levels of emotional closeness and family conflict: Tight-knit families, with high closeness and low conflict; ambivalent families, with high closeness and high conflict; commanding conflicted families, with low closeness and high conflict; and detached families, with low closeness and low conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, tight-knit families – a traditional Chinese family type that highlights respect for elders and closeness between generations – had the lowest risk of elder abuse, with 8 percent of older immigrants in such families reporting abuse. Of the older Chinese-American immigrants surveyed, 40 percent belonged to this family type.

“Chinese-American families of this type have a high degree of filial piety, the traditional value of caring for elders. Children in these families may see caring for their parents as less burdensome for this reason,” Li said.

The highest risk of elder abuse was found in ambivalent families, which lack the tradition of respect for elders and feature a mixture of good and bad feelings between family members. This was also the most common family type found in the survey, representing 45 percent of the surveyed population, of whom 20 percent reported experiencing abuse.

The next-highest risk was found in detached families, in which there is little engagement between generations. These families represented 10 percent of the surveyed population, of whom 22 percent reported experiencing elder abuse. 

Commanding conflicted families, in which adult children support their parents despite high levels of family conflict, represented 5 percent of the surveyed population, of whom 15 percent reported experiencing abuse.

The researchers suggest the creation of culturally customized services for minority older immigrants, based on an understanding of their family networks. These could include interventions to improve family relationships and reduce intergenerational conflicts. They could also include services that make it easier to relieve the burdens of caregiving by ensuring older minority immigrants are able to access culturally relevant social services without experiencing discriminatory treatment.

XinQi Dong, director of Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, was the study’s senior author. Researchers at the University of Iowa and Syracuse University contributed to study.