x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Economic woes strain China's elderly

Filial piety, or caring for one's parents, has long been a theme of Chinese society, but it is waning in modern times.

Wang Xuefa, a retired farmer who now lives in Beijing, sits with his grandchildren, Yutong, left, and Yufei.
Wang Xuefa, a retired farmer who now lives in Beijing, sits with his grandchildren, Yutong, left, and Yufei.

BEIJING //Wang Xuefa, a 59-year-old former peasant farmer, enjoys retirement. Originally from Henan province south-west of Beijing, he lives in the capital with his daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters, Yufei, five, and six-year-old Yutong. The arrangement works out well for both sides. Mr Wang looks after his two granddaughters for much of the time, and in turn as he gets older, his daughter will care for him. It is a common arrangement in China and one Mr Wang said was necessitated by the demands of modern life.

"Most parents are needed by their son or daughter to look after the grandchildren because the children have to work," he said. "And if my children didn't look after me, they would be laughed at. There's a strong expectation people will be filial." Filial piety, or caring for one's parents, has long been a theme of Chinese society, partly as a result of the teachings of Confucius. But according to Kam Ping Kwong, an associate professor in the faculty of social sciences and humanities in City University, Hong Kong, who has written extensively about old people in China, the practice of filial piety is becoming "watered down".

Although children remain keen to look after their parents, he said, demanding jobs, migration to large cities that leaves parents behind, and tiny flats unable to accommodate three generations make it harder for people to care for the older generation. "The Chinese family is facing a lot of problems," he said. Already there are indications more old people are being left on their own, becoming "empty nesters". Some lack support from their children. Local press have reported a 10 per cent annual increase in the number of old people going to court to force their children to look after them or visit.

"There are many old people not being cared for by their children," said Yu An, an assistant director with the Leling project, an organisation supported by the United Nations that provides community activities and home assistance, such as cleaning, for elderly people in Beijing. While she said the vast majority of old people in China were not worried about whether their children would look after them, contact time between elderly parents and their children was "less and less". As a result, she said many pensioners risked becoming isolated.

"In general [children] are not very keen to take care of their [parents'] psychological well being," she said. "They ignore that old people have a need to talk to someone." Current problems are likely to increase, since China's one-child policy means the ratio of old to young people is growing. By 2015, China's population is expected to reach 1.4 billion, according to reports this month that quoted Lin Bin, director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission. Two hundred million of these people will be above the age of 60.

The proportion above 65, currently below 10 per cent, is expected to increase to more than 15 per cent by 2030 and reach above 20 per cent by 2050, according to UN figures. City University's Mr Kam said the mainland's one-child policy meant there would be many families in which a husband and wife would have to look after four parents and up to eight grandparents. "The government needs to put more resources and offer more services for the older generation. Otherwise they will be left behind," he said.

"Chinese society and Hong Kong society have become ageing societies. We cannot just rely on family support, on the traditional virtues of filial piety." Housing policies should make it easier for children to live nearer their parents, he said, while more forms of community support were also required. In addition, greater numbers of residential homes for old people are needed, Ms Yu said. There are about 300 such homes in Beijing, and because the city's population of over 60s is expected to increase to 6.5m in 2050 from 2.5m now, this number will have to increase.

"The truth is we have so many old people, but so few nursing homes," she said. "[The authorities] are trying to promote this nursing home concept. The old people are quite reluctant to go into these homes to be looked after by strangers. Society is changing so they will have to change themselves." Whatever concerns lie ahead, many of China's elderly still enjoy close contact with their children and grandchildren.

Xiao Lianqi, 80, a retired union official, admits his Beijing towerblock apartment offers fewer chances to chat with neighbours than the traditional courtyard house he used to live in. But he has plenty of company from his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. "My daughter was a chef and she always cooks very nice meals for me, so I'm very happy," he said with a grin. dbardsley@thenational.ae