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Elderly care becomes increasingly difficult in a rapidly changing China

By Javier García / Beijing/ “Take care of your parents and treat them well when they grow old,” Confucius declared, establishing the idea of filial piety, and the Chinese have abided by the principle for centuries, but rapid changes in the country are making it increasingly difficult to follow the tenet.

The growing life expectancy due to economic growth has led to a sharp increase in the number of the elderly, while the one-child Policy, work pressure, and the increasing incorporation of women into the workforce is affecting the capacity of families to take care of the elderly.

Currently about 260 million Chinese, nearly 20 percent of the population, are older than 60, and the number is expected to jump to 300 million by 2025.

By then, senior citizens are expected to account for a third of the country’s population.

Nearly half of seniors live alone, especially in rural areas, where their children often have to migrate to big cities in search of jobs.

This has led to the number of old-age homes – a relatively recent phenomenon in China – to shoot up in recent years, but even though such facilities tripled between 2012 and 2017, growth has been unable to meet the demand.

“I am very happy here,” Wu Yunhua, an 88-year-old retired official told EFE at a public residence north of Beijing, where she has a bedroom and a small sitting area. She shared the space with her husband until he died at the beginning of this year.

“I have two children but they have their own life and cannot take care of me,” said Wu, insisting that China had “improved a lot” and recalling hard times in her childhood during the Japanese invasion.

She pays 4,500 yuan ($637) per month for lodging and food at the residence, which – like most state-run old age homes in China – only admits people who have lost their only child or made “special” contributions for the country.

These contributions could include helping someone in an accident or having worked as a volunteer social worker.

Zhang Lingyou, 83, and his wife Wu Yanhua, 84 – retired teachers of Chinese and Mathematics – pay a similar amount, and manage to get by on their pensions of 6,000 and 7,000 yuan respectively.

“China was always harassed by foreign countries, but now it is very powerful and no one can stop it. In 5,000 years [it] did not invade anyone, it is not a threat to others,” said Zhang, visibly proud of the progress made by his country since times when he had to use “coupons to buy food or clothes.”

The lives and stories of the elderly people living at a luxurious private old-age home in Takiang – on the outskirts of Beijing – are quite different.

Residents include former military officers, business people, university professors or artists, and the home boasts of facilities such as a swimming pool, spa, gym, big gardens, dance classes and even a hospital.

However, you need to be much more resourceful to live here compared to the public residence.

Li Wang, a retired soldier aged 84, had to deposit about 2.4 million yuan to live with his wife at a spacious apartment inside the complex, apart from paying a monthly 14,300 yuan rent.

“These are our final years and one wants everything. We have three children, but one lives in Canada and the other two are too busy to take care of us. We prefer living here,” Li, who spoke for both of the seniors, told EFE.

“A chauvinist? No, we have always managed things like this, she prefers not to speak,” he insisted when asked about the silence of his wife, who used to work in a factory according to Li.

The couple had to sell their house to be able to pay the deposit at the Taikang facility, which houses about 1,500 seniors.

Taking care of the elderly is not only an age-old tradition in China based on Confucianism, but has also been recognized in the constitution.

Due to the increasingly lonely seniors and the work requirements of their children, the Chinese government in 2013 approved a law which lays down sentences of up to five years in prison for people who refuse to take care of an elderly member of their family. (October 30, 2019, EFE/Practica Español)

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