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Chongyang: China’s elderly, Cute but troublesome

October 18, 2010
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All dressed up and nowhere to go. (Credit: Rickins)

I would continue to chronicle my travels, but I’m at work with no access to my pictures and I really wanted to blog about the elderly in China.

My inspiration is this ridiculous article from China Daily, a state-run newspaper published in English: GPS helps locate elderly gone astray. The tagline: “Are you still worried about that an elderly relative suffering from Alzheimer’s possibly wandering off? Well, you may find some comfort with this new application of the Global Positioning System (GPS).” It’s a ridiculous article, but it raises an important issue: what to do with all the old folks?

Although old Chinese people tend to be utterly adorable (especially when in groups), there is no denying they are the root of quite a lot trouble. Writes China Daily:

China’s most populated city now has 3.16 million permanent residents who are 60 or above. Of these, about 570,000 are above 80. Meanwhile, life expectancy in the city is slightly more than 81 years. By 2020, a third of its people will be 60 or more, according to population experts. To deal with the problems caused by an increasingly aging population, Shanghai is having to make an extra effort to come up with new policies – and high-tech solutions.

There has recently been a slew of articles about China’s ageing population and shifting demographics, especially because this past Saturday was the Chongyang Festival, or “Double Ninth” Festival (because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth month on the Chinese lunar calendar), on which the Chinese show filial piety and respect to the elderly.  My favorite article recently about demographic issues is China’s population destiny: the looming crisis, written by UC Irvine sociology professor Wang Feng for the excellent blog ChinaBeat. Writes Wang:

The size of the country’s population aged 60 and above, on the other hand, will increase dramatically, growing by 100 million in just 15 years (from 200 million in 2015 to over 300 million by 2030). The number of families with only one child, which is also on a continued rise, only underscores the challenge of supporting the growing numbers of elderly Chinese.

The article’s scope is much broader than just the issues raised by a growing number of elderly, but the above quote neatly sums up a huge problem China faces that often “flies under the radar,” Wang points out, in the face of China’s other problems, like pollution and rapid urbanization.

As the number of elderly mounts, China’s weak national healthcare system will surely fall under fire, especially as Chinese elderly almost all live with their families, as opposed to their own homes or nursing homes as they tend to in the United States (only ten percent of Chinese elderly live in nursing homes, according to China Daily). This explains the GPS tracking innovation, as many Chinese shift to more urban lifestyles and work away from home, leaving their parents alone. The health problems of the elderly will be right in the faces (or rather, living rooms) of their grandchildren, who will struggle to find them proper medical care.

I just keep thinking about China’s impending health crisis, and wonder if they’ll be able to avert it. It’s not just that the number of old people is going to spike. Chinese people have been developing terrible habits over the last few decades, especially smoking and eating habits. This article shows many of the horrifying statistics about China’s smoking problem. China now has over 300 million smokers – that’s the size of the U.S. population. Think about that. And with the rate of growth in unhealthy, cheap food outlets, both of Chinese and Western food  — the Chinese, like every other nation in history, has shifted to a diet much heavier in meat and refined sugars as they’ve become more affluent — I will be surprised if China’s obesity rates don’t skyrocket in the next decade to crisis levels.

Add it all up and its a bit scary, mostly the scale of it. What to do with all the elderly? How will the government respond to these problems? We’ll see. At least China will become increasingly cute.

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