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In China, Growing Old Isn't What It Used To Be

More and more elderly Chinese people are living far awar from their children, bringing the reality of aging "empty nesters" to the country. The social impact is huge.

Tai chi in Shanghai
Tai chi in Shanghai
Xie Liangbing

BEIJING - On Feb. 3 while in Beijing, Yan Zi received a call from her 65-year-old mother saying she’d been in the hospital for two days with high blood pressure.

This wasn’t the first time Yan Zi had received a belated call like this from her mother, who lives alone in Xilinhot City, in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia. A few weeks earlier she had slipped and fallen, leaving her bedridden for days. Yan Zi didn’t know about it until relatives called her three days after the accident. “Even if I had called you, there’d be nothing you could do,” her mother said.

Those words made Yan Zi sad for several days, but it was true. It takes six to seven hours to drive from Beijing to Xilinhot. The evening after they were informed of their mother’s fall, Yan Zi and her sister went to Xilinhot. But because of work, they only stayed for one day before having to return to Beijing.

Yan Zi hired a carer to look after her mother and also promised she and her sister would bring their families to visit during Spring Festival. However, her mother thinks it might be best to move back to Beijing with her daughters.

With the increasing mobility of China’s workers and the overall aging of the population, situations like Yan Zi’s are becoming common.

Staying Behind

A survey of eight cities showed that from 2000 to 2010, the proportion of elderly living in an “empty nest” (a home where an elderly person lives alone or with another elderly person) in urban areas went from 42 to 54%. The proportion of their rural counterparts living in empty nests went from 37.9 to 45.6%.

Yan Qingchun, deputy director of the China National Committee on Ageing, says that in developed countries like the UK and the U.S. more than 80% of elderly people live in an empty nest. So the proportion in China will certainly continue to increase. He says that this is bringing pressure to families and also spurring the development of retirement homes that can offer long-term professional care.

In Songpan, Sichuan - Photo: memn

Yan is concerned that the issue of caring for elderly people who’ve lost the ability to look after themselves has been neglected for too long. According to one estimate, the proportion of elderly in urban and rural areas who have lost the ability to care for themselves was 6.4% in 2010 – representing about 10.8 million people. It is expected that this number will reach 12.4 million by 2015.

This situation often leads to tragedy. In 2005, Wang Rulin, a former government vice minister, was found dead in the bathroom at her home. Police said she had been dead for several days, and had had an accident that caused excessive bleeding.

Tragedies like this can be even worse when elderly people are looking after their grandchildren, whose parents have gone to work in the city.

Xiao Kaiquan from Loudi City in the south-central Hunan Province was working in the provincial capital of Changsha in 2011. In September of that year, he quickly returned home after nobody answered his calls for several days. When he arrived, he was confronted with his worst nightmare. His 20-month-old daughter was lying unconscious in the arms of her grandmother’s decaying corpse. The grandmother had died one week earlier and the child barely survived.

Elderly people living in urban empty nests can have it just as bad. Since Yan Zi’s mother has long suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, she needs to inject herself with insulin every day. She has managed by herself for the past few years, but her recent fall and hospitalization have made her reevaluate the risks of living alone.

Full House or Empty Nest?

As early as 1999, China started to become an aging society. In that year, the population of people aged 60 and above accounted for 10% of the total population. By the end of 2011, it had reached 13.7%.

The generation born in the 1980s after the introduction of the one-child policy is now getting married and having children, while their parents grow old. The problem of how these aging parents will live out their retirement with only one child to support them is becoming a major concern.

Lin Qiang, born in 1982, is originally from Hunan Province and began working in the south Guangdong province after graduating from university. Lin lives with his wife, his three-year-old son and his wife’s parents in a two-bedroom apartment.

His own parents are also close to 60-years-old, retired and living alone back in Hunan. Lin says that he’s struggling to manage all his responsibilities. Should the limited resources be focused on his own son or on both sets of parents? Ignoring the parents would bring major shame, given the country’s filial tradition. But in China, simply sending parents off to a retirement home can also be considered morally questionable.

Yan says the utilization rate of retirement homes in rural areas is currently only 78%, leaving 475,000 empty beds. Furthermore, only about 11,000 out of the 30,000 rural retirement homes are officially registered and legal.

On the other hand, Yan explains, elderly people are becoming less willing to live with their children unless they’re needed to look after grandchildren. Yan Zi, for instance, has a sister who can share the pressure of caring for their mother. But after living with them in Beijing for six months, the mother went back to Xilinhot because she couldn’t adapt to the loneliness and boredom of city life.

“After her fall, she wanted to come live in Beijing again,” Yan Zi says. “But she’s not willing to live with us, so we would have to rent or buy another apartment for her.”

However, that would significantly increase their financial burden. Even if they live close to their mother in Beijing, they’d still need to hire a carer to look after her. Yan Zi worries that it won’t be easy to find someone who can do housework and has medical knowledge.

Currently there are only about 300,000 caregivers for elderly people across the country – of which less than 100,000 have professional qualifications. But the market demand for caregivers is more than 10 million. “The government needs to take responsibility for reducing the burden on children providing for the elderly,” Yan says. “But it should also allow private capital to enter the industry.”

What worries him more is that the total population of migrant workers working in urban areas was 250 million in 2011 – of which over 90% were employed temporarily. The restrictions of the hukou household registration system, the lack of employment standardization in companies and unstable work relations have caused a large number of migrant workers to hover between urban and rural systems. Less than one-sixth of the total migrant population has joined the basic pension insurance scheme. So where will their pensions come from in the future?

Cementing Parental Care into Law

To address both the issue of elderly people staying behind in rural areas and living alone in urban “empty nests,” some experts have suggested passing a law requiring their children to visit them at home frequently.

In June 2012, the The Law of Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly was proposed to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress for the first time. The provision that drew the most attention said: “Family members should care for the spiritual needs of the elderly and must not ignore or neglect them. The supporters who live separately from the elderly should frequently visit or send a greeting.”

In December 2012, the law was passed. It takes effect on July 1, 2013.

According to Yan, visiting the elderly has been cemented into the law in the hopes of re-establishing traditional virtues for society. Under the protection of law, honoring and providing for elderly people can become a social and moral norm. The law can also lead to other social changes, says Yan.

For instance, businesses may need to make changes like extending paid leave for workers to visit their parents in order to accommodate the new law.

Dang Junwu, vice director of China Research Center on Aging, says that 33 million elderly people across the country need help caring for themselves, which affects one-fourth to one-third of China’s families. “Dementia and losing the ability for self-care are the most difficult problems associated with the aging population,” Dang says.

Yan says that the government must continually improve the social pension system while also supporting policies to improve the development of the retirement industry.

He believes the concept of “home-based care for the aged” will be promoted in China in the future. Developed countries have formulated several measures to support home care for the elderly involving tax breaks, subsidies and flexible employment policies. In the future, it’s expected that over 95% of China’s elderly will want to live out their retirement at home, but policy in this area is almost non-existent at present.

This article was translated by Zhu Na

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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