How to Discuss End of Life Matters With Your Asian Parents


In Chinese culture, death is a taboo subject leading to an aversion of discussing end of life issues with family members. First generation children do not ask their parents about their final wishes for fear of upsetting their parents. There are different programs in the Greater Boston area that are addressing how to discuss end of life with senior family members while showing sensitivity to Chinese culture. For the complete article, follow our link to the Boston Globe.

Breaking taboo, Chinese elders learn to express end-of-life wishes

By Robert Weisman | Boston Globe

Nine wary residents gathered around a table in the basement of Boston’s Kenmore Abbey Apartments to broach a subject most people tend to avoid: death.

The residents — all Chinese-born men and women between 64 and 85 years old — sipped hot green tea. They listened poker-faced as a facilitator, Shiyun “Cici” Guan of the nonprofit Boston Senior Home Care, spoke in Cantonese about the need to designate a family member as a proxy to make health care decisions for them in the event of emergency or serious illness.

But when Guan and home care nurse Mary Jer passed out specialized playing card — designed to get the seniors talking about what they think will be most important at the end of their lives — the ice broke and the conversation flowed freely. The Heart to Heart Cafe, one of the first events of its kind on the East Coast, was underway. The end-of-life talk was candid, deeply felt, and animated.

“I want everyone around me to be happy,” said Lye Ling Ng, 85, “not to cry.”

“Money and everything else is not so important,” said 80-year-old Linda Cheung. “It’s more important to get everything accomplished before I die.” (The residents spoke in Cantonese. Their words were translated by Po Yuen, a Boston Senior Home Care employee.)

Because death is considered a taboo subject in Chinese culture — the numbers 4 and 14, which sound similar to the word for death, are omitted from floor schemes in Chinese buildings — many immigrants resist discussing it, for fear of bringing bad luck. Their American-born children often shy away from asking about their end-of-life wishes, such as if they would prefer to die at home or whether they would want to be kept on life support if they are incapacitated.

The reluctance to pose such questions stems in part from the Confucian concept of “filial piety,” the importance of respecting, obeying, and caring for parents, said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston, a community activist who isn’t involved in the Heart to Heart program. If the parents seem determined to sidestep the sensitive topic, the children will be loath to upset them. Read entire article

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