China's amended "PRC Elderly Protection Law" has come into effect this month.
The new law stipulates that family members cannot neglect the elderly, and are required to care for their spiritual needs. Family members who live separately from their aging parents must visit them regularly. Employers, likewise, must guarantee their workers the right to have leave in order to be able to see their parents.
This new law meant to safeguard "support and caring for the elderly" has sparked significant debate in China, with some worried that the government could punish citizens it determines are "not paying regular visits to the parents."
So what does “visiting parents on a regular basis” written in state regulation actually imply?
Zhao Yaohui, Professor of National Development Research Institute of Peking University, notes that in China retirement care of the elderly typically falls solely on family members. This involves both economic support as well as daily care.
According to data from the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Survey, issued by Zhao's institute, 90% of people over 60 live in the same household, community or city as their children. Only 6.1% of the elderly have children living in other towns. But because of China's huge population, 6.1% is still a significant number of cases. Zhao says the new law is not principally a question of economic support, but is aimed at addressing the problem of old people who are left alone and unattended.
According to the survey, of China's 70 million people over 60 years of age, some 40% have some symptoms of depression. Children going home to see their parents more often can provide some relief for this psychological epidemic.
Beyond the new law's protection of children's right to take leave from work for visiting aging parents, Zhao also notes further government plans to help facilitate elderly moving to be with their children. Compared with children returning home to take care of their parents, it is easier for parents to move to where their children are.
"It would be much more costly," she says, noting that the children are usually tied to their location by their career.
Compared with the West?
In practice it is difficult to impose on employers the obligation to provide more time off specifically for elder care. For instance, they will need proof that the parent needs assistance or that there are no other children available.
Zhao says the state should find a solution to lower the barriers for the elderly to migrate to where their children live. Currently, it remains very difficult for old people to move around. For example, health insurance is fixed to the home town. When an elderly person visits his or her children in Beijing and consults a doctor there the fee won’t be reimbursed when he or she returns home.
Zhao Yaohui said it's useful to compare China’s retirement system with that of Western countries. Indeed, most Chinese people don't realize that also in the West elderly care is mostly family-based. In the Chinese imagination, all old Westerners live in nursing homes. Take the United States as an example. Fewer than 10% of old people live in nursing homes.
In the U.S. right now, the economic aspect is less of a problem because the elderly are in general better off than their children. However, Zhao pointed out, psychological problems are equally a serious issue for these old people. Long-term care for the elderly is a common issue that countries everywhere face. Indeed, there are legal regulations about children visiting their parents in the U.S. as well, including the right of employees to take leave to care for their parents.