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Chinese celebrate the Day for the Elders


10-09-2016 12:57 BJT

Today is China's Chongyang Festival, also known as the Day for Elders, where Chinese families visit their ancestors' graves and elder relatives. It is a day to remind people of their traditional family ties of filial piety. But the fast growing elderly population poses big challenges for China.

For more, I am joined by Feng Xin, who has been following up on this issue. We have heard about the “empty-nest” situation - seniors who live far away from their children or don’t have any children or a spouse. Q1: How serious is China’s aging problem?

FX: I would say the problem is quite sevre.

The latest official numbers show that people over 60 years account for 15 percent of China’s population. By international conventions, countries that have a population that is 10 percent seniors, are considered aged societies. Obviously, China has surpassed this threshold.

The problem will intensify. This is not only because China's elderly population is growing three times faster than the average population, but those who live in a so-called "empty nest" will become more and more widespread.

After three decades of the one-child policy, Chinese families have become smaller and smaller and more like a “4+2+1” structure. This means a typical family will have four seniors, two adults and a single child. As China allows for more migration between regions, it’s already quite normal for parents and their only child to not live in the same city. Even if they do, after getting married, they are left with the choice of staying with their biological parents or their parents in law.

This inevitably leaves one side of parents in an "empty nest" situation. So, caring for seniors can be very challenging. But recently I visited a community here in Beijing, and saw how 20 households have found a special way to look out for elderly residents - especially those living alone.

Blinds carry a secret code that's only shared between 79-year-old Sun Yufen and her neighbor.

"We keep an eye on each other's windows regularly. If the blinds remain closed down, it signals that something's gone wrong, because we might get too sick to even make a phone call. We'll come to knock on each other's doors. If nobody responds, we'll then get our neighborhood committee," Sun said.

Sun and her husband still manage to do some light housework. Their children can't visit them all the time.  But 80-year-old Su Guiru has been living on her own since her husband passed away several years ago.

"We work in pairs. She keeps me on her mind and comes to check on me often. And I do the same. There's a bond between us. It gives me peace of mind knowing somebody cares about me," Su Guiru said.

The idea of a curtain pact originated from two families who supported each other for more than two decades in a neighboring community. When the idea was introduced to this neighborhood by social workers, residents worked out their own curtain codes.

Mrs. Han, 72, has suffered from a leg illness for a long time. Whenever she puts her blinds down half way, her paired neighbor Mr. Liu will help by bringing groceries to her apartment.    

Ten pairs of families in this community have made their curtain pact, but they are only a very small fraction of the seniors who live without carers. Social workers have told me that this community has about 2-thousand seniors. One-fifth of them are what many call "empty-nest" seniors.

"The curtain pact is only a formality. What we hope to achieve is establishing a platform for volunteers and seniors to communicate with and help each other. We hope to get more residents to take part," Xu Yanling, director of Jiangongnanli Neighborhood Committee, said.

Xu says they are hoping to double the number of families who join the curtain pact in the coming year.

Q2: In your story, we saw volunteers and seniors use a sweet but old-fashioned way to connect with each other. I wonder if there are other ways – maybe more technology-driven methods - to care for seniors who live alone.
FX: The use of smart technologies is definitely becoming a trend in elderly care. For example, in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, robots have been used in some nursing homes to monitor elderly people’s health, making video calls and assisting nurses with their work. In the central city of Luoyang, "smart sticks" can help family members or care workers to locate a senior’s whereabouts with GPS technology. If the senior falls down, he or she can press an emergency button to call for help. Although technology and services are growing fast in the elderly care industry, they are actually not as easy for seniors to use as many of us might think.I asked quite a few seniors and social workers why they chose old-fashioned ways to communicate with each other. They said when you get old or sick, even reading a screen, pressing a button or even talking becomes quite challenging. The digital divide is much wider than many of us can imagine. What struck me the most was that all my interviewees emphasized that their curtain pact is just a formality. It’s the emotional support and company that works the most.

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