Beyond tradition: Vietnam's elderly embrace living separately from children

By Pham Nga   April 19, 2024 | 05:58 am PT
When they retired, Vu Huu Giao, 86, and his wife have chosen to live independently from their six children, valuing their autonomy and financial independence.

Giao used to be a lecturer at the Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry, while his wife was formerly a laborer. The couple earns a pension of nearly VND15 million (US$599) per month.

As for the reason behind their decision to live separately from their children, which they made decades ago, Giao said he is still in good health, both physically and mentally, and he can still take care of himself. "There is nothing like independence and freedom," he said, sitting at his home in Dong Hy District, Thai Nguyen.

Every day, the retired teacher writes poetry, reads books, participates in poetry clubs and local associations that help children with their studies, or helps his wife with household chores so she can cook and take care of the vegetable garden.

He still rides his motorbike to collect charity clothes that he then donates a Mong community more than 30 km from his home in the northern province. He also attends meetings and visits friends far away. The couple eat whatever they need and do whatever they want.

"In this modern era, if you are sick, just call and your children will come right away, so there is no need to live with them," Giao said.

Vu Huu Giao and his wife view the news on their phone at their Dong Hy, Thai Nguyen home, December 2023. Photo courtesy of Giao

Vu Huu Giao and his wife view the news on their phone at their Dong Hy, Thai Nguyen home, December 2023. Photo courtesy of Giao

For more than 30 years, Nguyen Hong Hanh and her husband, have lived by themselves in an apartment of just more than 70 square meters.

Hanh, 77 and from Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi, is proud of her two sons and a daughter who are all living successful lives elsewhere. Every day, she and her husband hire household help to cook and clean. During their free time, Hanh studies embroidery or piano, while her husband reads history books.

"Living by ourselves makes me and my children happy. It’s hard to have conflicts if we all live separately." Hanh said.

Associate Professor, Dr. Huynh Van Chan, dean of the Faculty of Social Work (University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City), and vice president of the Vietnam Psychological Association, said that the elderly who live actively away from their children and grandchildren, like Giao or Hong Hanh, are part of a currently a trend in modern Vietnamese society. In many homes, this is replacing the previous family model that has been in use for at least 3 to 4 generations pervious.

The earlier model entailed a wife moving in with her husband’s family and the intergenerational household all caring for each other until the next generation is born, in an infinite cycle.

According to statistics from the Institute Of Population, Health, and Development published in 2020, 19% of 6,000 elderly people surveyed lived as a couple without their families, 8.6% of elderly people lived alone without even a spouse, of which more than half lived close to their children – such as in the same ward or commune – to make it more convenient for both sides.

In another study by the Institute for Family and Gender Studies, the proportion of elderly people living with a partner also increased from 9.48% in 1992-1993 to 50.4% in 2017, while elderly people living with children dropped from nearly 80% in 1992 to 28% in 2017.

According to Dr. Chan, many elders today are healthy and wealthy enough to live alone. They are more open-minded, prefer privacy, and desire freedom, the doctor said. They understand the risks and consequences of disagreements between generations while living together, and respect their children’s private space.

The elderly also do not want to be a burden to their children and prefer to have the next generation focus on work and their own families.

In some families, young people go to the city to live and settle down. Parents do not want to leave their hometown so they choose to live on their own.

"Today there are many care services for the elderly so they can live on their own without depending on the care of their children and grandchildren," Dr. Chan said.

The retired teacher Vu Huu Giao agreed with this point of view, saying that if his health deteriorates in the future but he is still lucid enough, he and his wife will hire a maid instead of living in a multigenerational home.

Hong Hanh and her husband also announced that if their health turned worse, they would hire a home healthcare service. "We also think we will find a high-end nursing home to stay in if those services are inadequate," she said. The couple also has plans for when they die: they’ve made a will, bought a plot of land in a cemetery, and have already prepared money for the burial.

They used to live with their eldest son and his wife when they first got married. But then generational conflicts began to arise. Hanh's husband has high blood pressure so he has to eat bland food. She has signs of diabetes so she cannot eat sweets, forcing her to switch from regular rice to brown rice. Every day, to avoid bothering the children, the old couple prepared their meals and ate in advance, but it was still uncomfortable for the family to cater to three or four different diets.

The couple wanted to go to bed early and get up early so they could exercise and stay healthy, but they couldn’t sleep because of the noise from their grandchildren. Despite being in the same house, everyone rarely spoke to or even interacted with each other.

"Even though no one hates anyone, their schedules don't overlap, making everyone uncomfortable with each other – creating a stuffy and tense atmosphere," Hanh said.

After living together for more than a year, the son and his wife asked to live away from their parents. The old couple supported their decision and took out their savings to fund a new house for their son. Their children bought an apartment in a different building but in the same area so they could easily go back and forth and visit their parents.

The results of a survey by the Institute of Sociology, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences in 2020 on criteria for happy families in Ho Chi Minh City further prove Hanh's conclusion. In the survey, one out of every 2.2 people is unhappy when living with their children.

Associate Professor, Dr. Huynh Van Chan said that when living alone, the elderly feel like they are in control of their lives, not dependent on their children. They also maintain financial independence. Meanwhile, their children are less stressed from having to take care of their parents and have more time to focus on their lives and careers.

"The independence of the elderly can create space for the relationship between two generations to develop positively," Dr. Chan said.

Elderly individuals engage in dance practice in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/ Pham Nga

Elderly individuals engage in dance practice in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/ Pham Nga

Since living alone, the conflict between Hong Hanh and her daughter-in-law has gradually disappeared. On weekends, the children come to eat with their grandparents, cook dishes that the elderly like, or the whole family goes on trips together.

"My husband and I no longer have insomnia, we live healthily, so our health and psychology are better, and we are happier with our children," she said, admitting that living alone is a way to foster the happiness of both their children and themselves.

However, according to experts, elderly people living alone can face feelings of loneliness and lack of care from relatives. Therefore, to be happy and healthy, they should participate in social activities, clubs, or classes to increase opportunities to socialize. Parents and children living separately can maintain their relationship by regularly meeting, talking, and participating in activities together.

Many organizations can provide and support elderly people living on their own through health care services, financial support, and social activities.

Every weekend, Vu Huu Giao’s house becomes a place of gathering for their children. Every year, the home becomes especially crowded on two occasions, National Day, which is September 2, and the 2nd day of Tet. National Day has become the chance for Giao to give some money to his grandchildren for their studies. Tet has become the opportunity for the whole family to gather and connect.

Giao and his wife don’t get sad being alone because of their busy and fun schedules. After waking up in the morning, they exercise together, and at night they listen to music and watch the news before going to bed. During the day, each person is busy with their own interests, meeting friends and neighbors.

"I read books and saw that writing poetry helps train the brain, so every week I post a post on social media, even though I know my poetry isn't good," Giao said with a smile.

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