The East is Greying

The New York Times’ ‘The New Old Age’ blog notes the proliferation of residential facilities for the elderly in China, in the context of the country’s tradition of care in the family.

Contemporary China is experiencing many of the same demographic and socioeconomic pressures as the United States, he recently reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. People are living much longer; family structures are changing; women have entered the workforce. With no national health insurance program like Medicare and with the one-child policy that places elder care responsibilities on fewer shoulders, Chinese families also face some challenges greater than ours.

There’s no safety net, Dr. Feng said, and “that has created an escalating need for care for a lot of aging people.” (A whole lot: roughly 112 million people over age 65 now, and a projected 329 million by 2040.)

Surveying seven Chinese cities, he found a proliferating number of elder care homes, the great majority privately built and operating with negligible government subsidies. The ancient capital of Nanjing, for example, had 27 homes in 1990 and 52 a decade later. By 2009, when Dr. Feng and his team began investigating, the city had 148. Beijing and Tianjin showed similar growth. Shanghai had 552 facilities.

The Economist’s recent Special Report on China visited one retirement home while describing the country’s looming demographic changes:

The clientele of the Le Amor retirement home in the Fragrant Hills of western Beijing are no ordinary folk. Staff boast that one of them taught President Hu Jintao when he was at university. Another is the descendant of a nutritionist who worked for the Empress Dowager Cixi, China’s last great imperial ruler. A third is a former senior official in the party’s top anti-corruption body. By the grim standards of such homes in China, it seems they are being treated well. If they wish, they can rent a suite of rooms, including one for a live-in servant. All rooms have an emergency button.

The home’s director is coy about how she secured such a desirable rural location for her $10m venture, away from the city’s downtown smog. Le Amor is one of only a handful of privately run retirement homes in the capital aimed at the well-to-do. Looking after the elderly is a business in its infancy in China, where that task usually falls to the offspring, if any. But Le Amor’s market has very attractive prospects.

EconomyWatch examines the same issue, asking Will China Grow Old Before It Gets Rich?

In 2040, the proportion of over-60s in the population will rise from the current 11 per cent to 28 per cent – and possibly even as high as 32 per cent, the year when communist leaders are confident that fast growth will have brought China close to challenging the economic power and strategic size of the United States.

“In Europe, the elder share of the population passed 10 percent in the 1930s and will not reach 30 per cent until the 2030s, a century later,” say Jackson and Howe in their paper for Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “China will traverse the same distance in a single generation.”

… The issue puts a huge strain on families – and the next generation of Chinese youths who will be (culturally) expected to look after their elderly family members. Ordinary Chinese are coping with a 4-2-1 inverted pyramid, four grandparents to two parents, and all the responsibility of an only child.

July 29, 2011 5:48 PM
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Categories: Economy, Society