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Future bleak for China’s rising elders

Beijing, Dec. 25: One of the world’s oldest nations is getting older.

China’s population of 1.3 billion is greying rapidly and the country now has 144 million seniors, a recent white paper issued by the state council said.

The number of people over 60 is increasing by six million a year and China will have about 280 million senior citizens by 2025, about the entire population of the US.

Since China has few welfare programmes or social safety nets, the fate of the aged is uncertain. The problem is already spiralling in such areas as central Chongqing and Sichuan provinces, whose ageing levels exceed the national average.

Dai Yong Fa, a senior in You Liang village in Chongqing, said her life could be typified by one word — nothing. “We have nothing to do and we sit around all day playing mahjong,” she said, gesturing to the tables of retirees along the main street of her village reverberating with the click-clack of mahjong pieces being shuffled.

“We get nothing from the government, and we have nothing — even our kids are away in the cities working,” she said.

Traditionally in China, where age and experience is revered, retirement was seen as a “golden time” when a person could sit back and enjoy the material rewards of a lifetime’s work, the love and care of children and grandchildren. Because of this tradition of filial responsibility, the government didn’t create a strong social safety net for seniors.

It was only when children could not or would not care for their parents that the state stepped in to help — in a very modest way.

For example, China’s old-age homes can accommodate only about 1.5 million people, or about 1 per cent of the population above 60, according to the National Working Committee on Ageing.

But modernity has brought new realities. Increasing numbers of children are moving away from their homes and a recent survey conducted in Beijing found that about half of the city’s seniors lived alone.

Most children still financially support their parents, and the practice of putting them in old-age homes is spreading. But because China generally limits each family to one child, a typical couple now has to support four elders.

That has strained both the married couples’ ability to care for their parents, and ties between the generations.

“We don’t need our children to help us,” Dai said proudly when asked if her children who have migrated to the cities help her financially. “We are self-sufficient and can take care of ourselves.”

But the truth is that poverty seriously threatens China’s elderly as few of them have meaningful savings.

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