China's Elderly Face a Care Crisis Economic and Social Shifts Force Government to Take over Functions of Extended Family

Article excerpt

CHEN XINYUE lies quietly in bed, thin wisps of her hair splayed on the pillow, her frail hands curled on the blanket.

Four months earlier, the 78-year-old Mrs. Chen was forced to come to the Yangpu District Home for the Aged because her six children had neither the room for her in their crowded apartments nor the time to care for her outside their busy jobs.

She has been sick for much of the time since arriving. But Yang Rendi, a daughter who was visiting one afternoon, says Chen's adapting.

"When she first arrived, she felt ill-at-ease because she didn't know what kind of institution this was," Ms. Yang says. "Now she is gradually getting used to it, and her health is improving. We had to be practical. At home, she was lonely, and we had to worry about her meals and whether she would just walk out of the house."

China faces a crisis in caring for its elderly as the government is forced to take on responsibilities performed for centuries by the family. The situation grows out of the government's stringent one-child-per-family policy and the economic reforms that triggered a major shift in social mores, Chinese analysts say.

"How to better provide and care for the aged is a big problem for China," says Hong Guodong, director of the China Research Center on Aging in Beijing. "Respecting the old is a traditional value in China. However, this belief is decaying. Younger people tend to seek pleasure for themselves and care less for the old. Perhaps this is the price a nation pays for modernization."

Within a generation, China will have the largest elderly population on earth - more than 370 million by the year 2040, almost 25 percent of its population.

Across East Asia, fast-track economies and stunning social changes are effecting in 25 years what it took the better part of a century to do in the West: As rapidly aging populations strain the region's fast growth and resources, governments are forced to develop their meager pension and social security programs to compensate for the weakened extended-family support system. Women who in the past cared for elderly family members, for example, are now too busy with jobs and raising children.

"China is now in a transformation from family care to community care," says Wu Linqiao, a Shanghai official dealing with aging issues. "How can one couple care for four older people? Socialized care will become more important than family care," he adds.

In rural areas, the crisis is even more acute, Chinese researchers say. Now that they are free to move to the cities, many young farmers in urban areas can no longer care for aging parents in the countryside. The grandparents may also have to raise grandchildren left behind. …