Methods: Due to the limited knowledge about this topic and its exploratory nature, this research adopted a qualitative research method. Fifteen left-behind rural older adults in a village in Henan, China were purposively selected and interviewed from 2018 to 2019. The in-depth interviews were conducted and recorded after participants’ oral consent was obtained. Each interview lasted an average of 30 minutes. The transcripts of the interviews were read and analyzed in Chinese to avoid losing any meaning of the dialogue. Quotes representing the major themes were selected from the transcripts and then translated from Chinese to English. The age of the participants ranged from 63 to 85. Five participants were widowers or widows. Their living arrangements included living alone, living with a spouse, living with left-behind grandchildren, and living with a daughter-in-law and left-behind grandchildren.
Results: The findings indicated that their spouse, neighbors, and friends provided some emotional support for the left-behind older adults but emotional support from their children and relatives was limited. Emotional support from local government and social service agencies for older adults was rare. The support they received was scattered during holidays, mainly through telephone call or video chat, undertook primarily by daughters, replaced by material gifts, and reduced when they get older. There were five main types of needs for emotional support among older adults, including living together with children, filial piety of children, being listened and understood, remarriage, and being respected, which are hard to be satiated under the background of contemporary China. To enrich emotional life, older adults made efforts to develop informal social support through interacting with other left-behind, older adults and participating in social and religious activities.
Conclusions and Implications: Left-behind, rural, older adults had a variety of needs for emotional support; however, little support was available to satisfy their needs. The current urbanization and socioeconomic development in China may change rural, young people’s living arrangement and erode the traditional practice of filial piety for older parents among rural young people. To enhance left-behind rural older adults’ emotional wellbeing, policies and programmes that encourage and support rural young people’s filial piety toward their older parents may be developed. Social workers and other professionals may also help organize social and recreational activity groups among left-behind, rural, older adults to broaden their social network and enhance their peer support.