May 10, 2011

CHINA: Alarming truth about solitary senior citizens

SHANGHAI / The Shanghai Daily / Chinese Perspectives / Opinion / May 10, 2011

By Wu Guangqiang 

As a fifty-something, I'm most concerned about a particular aspect of China's sixth and latest census: the aging population.

The census conducted last year shows that people over the age of 60 now account for 13.3 percent of China's population, compared with 10.3 percent in 2000. That is about 174 million people. It is estimated that by 2015 this number will exceed 200 million.

Dry figures pale in comparison with a first-hand observation. A ramble around any old neighborhood in old cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, will reveal scenes of a twilight existence.

I moved to Shenzhen in Guangdong Province 28 years ago from my hometown Hangzhou. Every year on my home visit, I find the residential quarter, where my 95-year-old mother is still living, gets quieter and quieter. Walking along the winding alleys, I encounter more elderly men or women than younger people.

Old People doing Morning Tai Chi by West Lake in Hangzhou.  The serene loveliness of Hangzhou's West Lake (Xi Hu) and the surrounding hills remain spellbinding. Illustrative file photo courtesy

Due to a combination of factors, such as the family planning policy, lower mortality and longer life expectancy, China will be confronted with a daunting challenge that may take the nation aback if not dealt soon and adequately.

Some of the many thorny problems may make both authorities and the elderly shudder at the very thought of them. Will there be enough pension funds to match the fast-growing army of retirees? Who will take care of hundreds of millions of elderly people, many of them unable to care for themselves?

An example

My extended family epitomizes the pressing problems of China's aging population. My mother is living with a nurse in a three-bedroom apartment. She is not the only elderly person in my family, though she is the oldest. All her children are elderly, with my siblings all older than 60 and I myself close to 60.

A photo of the large family gathering for this Spring Festival (Courtesy: looks as though it had been taken in a home for the elderly. Most members of the third generation are already in their thirties or forties. Preteens and teens are rare. My family pictures are much like those of other families among my relations, friends and neighbors.

The huge number of existing elderly people must be well cared for, even as plans are needed to care for the increasing number of their successors. The mammoth task will be a mission impossible unless preparations are undertaken right now.

My mother is lucky because she does not lack care and attention. Though she is living alone with a nurse's care, my two sisters and elder brother in Hangzhou visit her every week by turns. I am the only family member living away from home, so I pay for the nurse and give her a call every week to check on my mother.

But there are not many elderly people as lucky as my mom. According to the latest census data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, 49.7 percent of turban seniors live alone. The percentage is even larger in rural areas where young people migrate to cities.

On March 5, an old man was found dead in a rented room in Shenzhen. He had been dead for three months and police said he was a Hong Kong resident who lived alone.

Similar cases are far from few. Even in a highly developed society like Japan, it is not uncommon to discover deceased elders who had been living alone. Early this year, the skeleton of a 58-year-old man was found in an apartment in Kawaguni city, Saitama Prefecture, Japan. He had been dead for two years.

Care givers

This apparently intractable problem arises because there are so many people and too few resources. And those born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s will soon join their solitary ranks. For a young couple where each spouse is an only child it is impossible for them to take care of four parents. Hiring a nurse or ayi might be an option, but nursing costs are soaring.

The only possible solution is settling elders in homes for the elderly. But that's easier said than done. Many knotty problems must be tackled.

Photo of an elderly woman eating a meal alone in a nursing home, highlights the shortage of aged care in China. (Courtesy: Epoch Times/Getty Images)

According to international standards in advanced countries, every 1,000 elderly people should have 50 to 70 beds at suitable facilities and institutions. This means that by 2015, we need at least 10-14 million beds for elders who cannot care for themselves. Currently we only have around 2.7 million nationwide.

The shortage of qualified professional care takers is even more enormous. Across the country, there are only around 200,000 care takers, of which only 10 percent hold some sort of certificate.

Taking care of old people will be one of the biggest challenges facing China in the coming decades. The central government should take immediate action to tackle the issue. Legislation should ensure an adequate pension reserve to support the growing number of those needing support.

Establishing community homes for the elderly and investing in facilities to care for them must be part of China's plans for economic and social development.

The author, Wu Guangqiang, is a freelancer based in Shenzhen

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