Greying China taps rural elderly to care for those even older

Sun May 19, 2013 1:08pm EDT
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By Li Hui and Maxim Duncan

QIANTUN, China (Reuters) - Two years short of 70, Zhang Guosheng spends his days caring for an 81-year-old fellow villager - washing his clothes, bringing meals to his bed, and keeping him company - a routine he'll keep up until he himself needs the type of care he is now giving.

"Living here is better than staying at home alone. We help each other and have a common language," said the spritely Zhang, an enthusiastic dancer. "We are very happy here."

With younger villagers who would traditionally have looked after their parents and grandparents flocking to the booming cities to seek work as part of Beijing's urbanization drive, Qiantun village in northern China's Hebei province has had to pioneer a new model - the old looking after the even older.

Surrounded by green wheat fields that stretch across a flat plain, Qiantun is unremarkable among countless rural Chinese communities, but its old-age care model is now a prototype cited by central government as a solution to the daunting challenge of caring for a vast and rapidly greying rural population.

One of every four Chinese will be older than 60 by 2030, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Massive rural-to-urban migration will further strain the rural areas' ability to provide care for the elderly, as personal savings and family support remain the primary pillars of old-age care.

"Migrants to urban areas are mainly young adults, leaving mostly the elderly in villages with children," said Wang Dewen, an expert with the World Bank's Beijing office. "The formal eldercare system in rural areas is very weak, and basically a blank spot in many places."

As a result, the gap between the number of elderly in rural and urban areas is expected to balloon over the next 15 years, to 11 percentage points from today's 1.24 percentage points, the ministry projects.   Continued...

Elderly people dance during a morning exercise session at the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing in this October 10, 2009 file photograph. One of every four Chinese will be older than 60 by 2030, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The costs of caring for China's rapidly expanding elderly population are likely to be too heavy a burden for the government, forcing Beijing to find cost-effective and creative ways to provide care in myriad localities. The self-help model being practiced among the 1,500 residents of Qiantun offers a cheaper and streamlined alternative to a state-run system. REUTERS/Grace Liang/Files