Elderly in China: Villages for the Aged

Elderly in China: Villages for the Aged

When I came back to China from a three weeks visit in Germany last month, I found myself in a half-empty house. My mother-in-law was standing in the kitchen preparing dinner, which is a very rare picture as it’s always my father-in-law who is responsible for cooking at home. “He left for three months to work in another town a few hours from here”, she would say in a casual voice as if telling me the time of the day. He left, and my mother-in-law stayed behind.

That got me thinking. It is actually not the first time that he had gone away for a few months to join the force of migrant workers in the big cities. I just had never thought about the implications, or was too preoccupied with myself to see.

The Guardian wrote that

“In 2009 there were 167 million over-60s, about an eighth of the population. By 2050 there will be 480 million, while the number of young people will have fallen.”

This means that over 12 percent of China’s population is aged 60 or older, and by 2050 this will be over 30 percent. And the fact that the rate of population aging is much higher in the countryside than in the cities has become more than evident, even for outsiders.

Just a few days ago, we visited the local museum in Bozhou, and I stumbled upon a huge wall with pictures of elderly. It turns out, Bozhou and its surrounding villages have been awarded the name “China’s town of longevity” 中国长寿之乡in 2011, having one of the highest concentrations of people aged over a hundred years. (There exist 20 more towns who have been awarded this name in China, but Bozhou is the only one in the province Anhui.) In the beginning I was amazed. I have seen many old people aged over 80 still working on the fields. And I always thought how amazing they are, and what astonishing health they must have to keep up the hard work routine day out day in.

亳州谯城百岁老人寿星图 - Bozhou's centenarian longevity chart

亳州谯城百岁老人寿星图 – Bozhou’s centenarian longevity chart

However, now I am not so sure this phenomenon is so amazing at all. Taking the fact aside how old most of those people get (which is an amazing thing), they are mostly left alone.

China has changed dramatically in recent years, including the changing of family structure. In traditional Chinese society, the elderly used to live with one of their children. But nowadays, more and more young adults are moving out to cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, seeking a better life, leaving their elderly parents alone who are now getting old and need care.

It is not different in my Chinese family. When I asked my mother-in-law if she is said that her husband leaves her for several months a year, and that all of her children have left as well, she would just give me one of those warm smiles. She says, there is nothing to be sad about, after all, her husband just leaves for two to three months a year, usually after the biggest harvest is done; but other people are left alone the whole year. My sisters-in-law, their husbands come home once a year, if at all. And looking at other close and distant relatives, they all have their families ripped apart. I don’t know of any member of my family who lives in a whole 365 days a year.

What shocked me is their attitude towards it. They think it’s normal, and every time I explain how things work in Germany, they shake their head concluding that I just have gone temporary insane for even dreaming up such a perfect scenario.

In fact, there is no one to blame directly. We could blame the politics, the party, the country… But what good would that do? Our Niuji village is still a village for the aged. In order to make money and a better life, the children have to leave their parents alone.

But to be fair, the government is trying to change things. And with such a huge population we always have to take into account the difficulty of such an endeavor. China Daily wrote in 2011 that

“The ancient capital of Nanjing, in Jiangsu province, for example, had 27 homes in 1990 and 52 a decade later. By 2009, the number had risen to 148. Beijing and Tianjin showed similar growth, while Shanghai had 552 facilities by the same year.”

But it is obvious that despite of the growth, there is still a long way to go. Official records show that the number of available beds in nursing homes can only cater for 1.8 percent of China’s elderly population.

In our city, Bozhou, we have 49 homes for the elderly. There even has been a small home in Niuji village, but it was closed down year ago due to financial difficulties. Even if we had a place for our elderly here in Niuji, many children would rather leave their parents alone at home than sending them off to a care home, sometimes because of the finical restraint, but mostly because of the fear of losing facing. No neighbour would see it as a kind deed if a son sends their parents off to a nursing home instead of caring for them himself.

Except sending the elderly off to a home, a new scheme developed in some Chinese villages, one I feel has great potential. The younger elderly people take care of the very old left behind. Maybe like this the older generation feels less lonely, and the children feel less pressured.

It is too early to say what we will be doing when the time comes. For now we try to be home with family as much as time allows, so we can avoid the pain of emptiness.

But being in an intercultural relationship brings up new dimensions of this problem. What will I be doing with my family in Germany? How can someone take care of two families spread thousands of miles apart…

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

8 thoughts on “Elderly in China: Villages for the Aged

  1. How to take care of the elderly is a difficult thing. As long as the parents or grandparents are healthy or with only minor health issues it is no problem to take care of them at home. But as soon as there is something bigger, let’s say Alzheimer’s, it can easily destroy a family.
    Facilities for elderly are not yet enough in China and furthermore they are usually too expensive, besides the issue of saving face…

  2. It’s definitely a growing problem everywhere, and a difficult issue to deal with. My fiancé’s grandfather lives with my future parents-in-law, but it’s certainly becoming more and more of a rare phenomenon, even in Japan. I have friends who had to return to their rural home towns to take care of ailing parents though, leaving their life/family in Tokyo behind. There have been some TV shows focusing on the problem in Japan, especially when the elderly need more care, but the children are all workingーit’s notoriously difficult to take time off from work, and getting a nurse to visit their home is both expensive and not a 24hr a day solution. :/

  3. great post! it’s so obvious when traveling around China’s rural areas. But I also see this phenomenon in other countries, even in Germany. Sure, we can meet more often than just once a year, but lots of old people are left alone there as well and people move from small villages to cities. And i observed the same in Korea as well. But Germany and Korea are both very small countries. That’s why it’s easier for those family members who moved away to visit their parents more often. China, on the other hand, is just soooo huge and if someone moves to Shanghai or Beijing from somewhere in the West, it’s impossible for them to meet on a regular basis… I also think all those left behind children…. that phenomenon is just crazy :( we can be so lucky in the West!

  4. A serious problem and and a wonderful post. Your photos are excellent.

    China’s one-child policy makes it even more difficult. You mention your future concern about caring for parents in two separate countries. I don’t know if you and your husband have siblings, but if you did that would make it easier. Before my mother died, my sister and I worked together to care for her. She lived in an assisted living facility, but even there she needed lots of help (shopping, paying bills, picking up prescriptions, doctor’s appointments as well as keeping her company and taking her out for lunch).

  5. I think that the situation is a little different here in Taiwan as the island is quite small and even if the children live in the cities, it is only a short drive away to return home to visit family. All four of my husband’s siblings live in Taipei and return often. My husband and I only live a kilometer away so we are only a phone call away. However, you do bring up some great points regarding the potential problems China might face in the future!

  6. I realized this problem in my village too, it’s a really sad thing to see yet it’s undeniable fact. the number of the residents are only decreasing, not many young people would return to live in rural villages for a long time, all of their jobs and houses are in the cities. besides they don’t know how to do the field work.

    • For the younger generation it’s impossible to retunr to the villages. There is nothing to do. Most have a good education and some even a university degree. What would they do in a village? Even if they knew how to do field work, most younger people don’t want to return to that life again. And I think it’s understandable.

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