Residents warm themselves in the afternoon sun at theLuofu retirement home on the outskirts of Shanghai.
China No Country for Old Men as Government Battles
Wang Fuchuan lies in bed wearing a quilted black jacket, withtwo comforters pulled up to his chin to keep out the chillyNovember air. The heating at Beijing Songtang CaringHospiceis broken and the 90-year-
old’s nostrils are stuffed with
toilet paper to stop them dripping.Cockroaches scurry across the floor of his room, which has norunning water or toilet. His possessions, a few articles ofclothing, are in a plastic bag under his bed next to a pink washbowl with a sliver of soap. His only entertainment is a transistorradio.Wang counts himself lucky. While he has no family or savings,he fought against the Japanese and Kuomintang in the 1940s, so
the government pays the clinic’s monthly fee of 2,000 yuan
($318). His 200-yuan pension buys food.
“A lot of people my age can’t afford to be here,” Wang says. “The foodisn’t too good, but I have nothing else to complain about.”
Wang is in the vanguard of a looming demographic shift forChina,Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Jan. 9 issue. The latest government census shows 178 million Chinese were over 60 in 2009.That figure could reach 437 million -- one third of the population -- by 2050, the United Nations forecasts. While the elderly were lookedafter in the past by th
eir children, urbanization and the nation’s one
-child policy have eroded the tradition of family care.
“It’s a demographic tsunami,” says Joseph J. Christian, a fellow at the Asia Center at the
Piper partner in Hong Kong, who specializes in senior housing issues in China. “The whole multi
generational housing model has
China’s challenge is similar to that faced by
Japanin the 1990s, with one essential difference: China will grow old before it gets rich.With tens of millions of parents left to fend for themselves, the government set up aNational Committee on Agingto try to devise acomprehensivestrategy (CHGE7)to ensure their health and comfort.The latest five-year plan still gives families primary responsibility for elderly care. Even so, the government is looking to the privatesector, nongovernmental organizations, and local communities for a more sustainable solution. So far only a handful of companiesprovide service comparable to the West, and even care like the kind offered by the clinic where Wang Fuchuan lives is relatively rare.
“Elderly health care is in its infancy” in China, says Ninie Wang, founder of Beijing
Too Few Beds
China has about 38,000 institutions serving the elderly with 2.7 million beds, enough for about 1.6 percent of the population over 60,according to theWorld Bank.That compares with about 8 percent in developed countries, the bank says.Some homes are fully staffed government clinics for senior officials or private hospitals catering to the new urban elite. Most areboarding houses with few medical facilities, mainly in large cities. In towns and villages, the situation is far worse.
“If we can’t help people in Beijing, you can forget about any opportunities for helping the rural old people,” says Jing Jun, a professor of
anthropology atTsinghua University. A 2009 survey of 140 nursing homes in the eastern city of Nanjing by a group of Chinese academics found that fewer than a thirdemployed a doctor or a nurse. Most of the staff were unskilled rural migrant workers with minimal training.