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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 10:20, September 26, 2004
How China copes with an aging population
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The old lady leans against the railing of her balcony, gazing idly at the queue of cars moving slowly below her building in northwestern Beijing. Now and then, her wrinkled face would light up but disappointment almost always follows.

Sun Yuying, 78, is waiting for her daughter's silver VolkswagenJetta though she knows it is not likely to appear on a weekday. Granny Sun has been living alone, in an "empty nest," for 15 yearsever since her daughter got married. Her husband had passed away even earlier. Lu Jing, her daughter, has recently bought an apartment for her, but the spacious flat fails to make the old lady happy.

"Nothing could please me more than having a meal together with my daughter and granddaughter," the old lady says. Sitting in her empty apartment, Granny Sun feels that time passes rather slowly. Her sole companion is a color television set, which is turned on as soon as she gets up.

She used to do exercises and go shopping with her neighbors when living in her former courtyard house. But now, with neighborsin the new environment rarely on speaking terms, she shuts herselfup in her own world most of the time.

Lu Jing visits her mother once every week with her husband and daughter. That is the great occasion for Granny Sun, who would getup early, go to the supermarket to buy groceries and busy herself in the kitchen the whole morning. Lu feels a bit guilty. "I wish Icould spend more time with my mother," she says. "But I am always so busy and Mom is unwilling to live with us."

Granny Sun is open-minded about this. "We are of different generations and can't always see eye to eye in some respects," shesays, adding that living separately is good for them all. Though feeling lonely, she believes that "it is inevitable."

Granny Sun is one of a growing number elderly people in China. According to the fifth national population census conducted in 2000, the number of senior Chinese aged above 60 had reached 131 million, 10.4 percent of the country's total population. And the figure is growing at an annual rate of 3 percent. By an estimate, the population of senior citizens in China will reach 200 million by 2015, 14 percent of the total population. China is being swept by a silvery tide.

"In a way, this represents great progress," says Du Peng, a professor of population studies and director of the Institute of Gerontology of the People's University in Beijing. A primary reason for the fast aging of the Chinese population is that the Chinese people now live much longer than before, according to the professor.

Over the last half century, the life expectancy of the Chinese population has kept growing, from less than 40 years before 1949 when New China was founded to 70 in 1997. Average life expectancy in 2002 further rose to 71.4 years, approaching levels in developed countries.

According to an estimate by the United Nations, people born in China in 2005 can expect to live up to an average age of 72. In China, the aging process is much faster than that in developed countries. According to Tian Xueyuan, a population specialist, it takes China about 40 years for the proportion of people aged above65 years in its population to rise from 7 percent to 17 percent, whereas it takes twice that long for developed countries to do likewise.

Providing for a fast-growing population of elders is a colossalundertaking in China. In cities, it relies mainly on a social security system, whereas in rural areas, elderly people are provided for mainly by their offspring and by themselves. The local government provides for childless people of an advanced age.In more affluent rural areas, elders also receive pensions.

China has established a pension system for retirees combining abasic old-age pension, a supplementary old-age pension contributedby the employer and workers' individual old-age insurance payment.For elders in urban areas not covered by the pension system, the government provides a monthly cost of living allowance. The Chinese nation has the fine tradition of respecting and caring forthe aged.

According to a recent survey, of total incomes for the aged, that from offspring accounts for 16.8 percent in cities, 21 percent in towns and 38.1 percent in counties. This means offspring support is of considerable importance in cities and of great importance in the countryside. The government, therefore, promotes providing for the aged by the family and offspring.

Experts say this policy has a good foundation and is also necessary in China. "Distant relatives are not as important as close neighbors" is a popular saying in China. The role of the community in caring for the aged is receiving growing attention.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs has launched a "Starlight Program" nationwide. With an investment of 13.5 billion yuan, the government has built 32,490 "Starlight Homes for Senior Citizens,"or community centers for elderly people, across the country, wherepeople can have a comfortable social life. Activities at such centers include reading, doing fitness exercises, playing cards, painting pictures, creating calligraphic works and taking courses offered by colleges for senior citizens.

The community as the best friend of the lonely man or woman hasnot come a moment too soon. By 2003, the number of senior Chinese living in "empty nests" has exceeded 23.4 million, 23 percent of the country's total senior population.

The situation is especially serious in big cities. For instance,of the 2.5 million senior citizens in Shanghai, over 40 percent are "empty nesters." The proportion is 62 percent in Tianjin and 40 percent in Beijing.

Loneliness, as Granny Sun suffers, is what afflicts elderly people most, says Chen Yi, vice-chairman of the Beijing Aging Committee. Today, many "empty nesters" like Granny Sun would spenda lot of time at Starlight Homes for Senior Citizens, in the company of fellow senior citizens, each pursuing something to his or her own liking.

Lu Jing has decided to have her mother enrolled in a shadow boxing class sponsored by the local community. "By enrolling in the class, she could not only do more outdoor exercises, which is good for her health, but also make friends with her fellow seniorsso that she would no longer feel lonely," Ms Lu says.

In many cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Fuzhou,an "assistance bell" has been installed in a great number of "empty nests." When an emergency occurs, an empty nester can press a button to request relevant services. As the government pays moreattention to meeting the needs of elderly people, volunteers have stepped out to offer free services.

In Beijing alone, more than 300,000 volunteers, each paired with one or a couple of seniors in need of help, visit their charges regularly to clean their rooms, wash their clothes and give them emotional counseling. Many of the volunteers have had the "assistance bell" installed in their homes so that they could hurry to their charges to provide timely aid.

While many elders remain in their "empty nests," relying on community services to dispel their loneliness, other elderly people have chosen to go to so-called seniors' apartments, like Wang Chengzhen, a 74-year-old retired technician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"Being attended and playing with fellow seniors is much better than staying alone at home," says the old man. Half paralyzed eight years ago, Wang was unable to live alone. His offspring oncehired a nurse for him, who, he found, sold secretly his experimentequipment. In a rage, he dismissed the nurse and moved to the Liulihe Seniors Apartments in the southern suburbs of Beijing.

Wang is quite satisfied with living conditions there: a small apartment with a sitting room, a bedroom and a bath. Every day, nurses there clean his room, bring him meals and wash clothes for him.

Statistics show that an increasing number of elderly people prefer to enter a senior's apartment or a nursing home. In Shanghai, one-sixth of the senior citizens aged above 65, hunger for care or in a bid to relieve the burden on their offspring, express a willingness to live in nursing homes.

At present China has a developing country's economy, but the age structure of its population approaches that of developed countries. "China cannot act as a welfare nation, with the government taking full responsibility to provide for all its senior citizens," says Population Specialist Tian Xueyuan.

"Instead, it can only take the road of providing for the aged by a combination of sources: the society, the family and senior citizens themselves. "China should have a social security system for the aged in which the three sources combine and complement oneanther.

On the other hand, support from the society, family support andself-support have different importance in this social security system; and their relative importance tends to change with the lapse of time," Tian says.

Source: Xinhua

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