My grandma endured war, famine and other hardships in her 83 years of life. Yet by the time she died, about 15 years ago, she regarded herself a lucky and happy woman, because she had been living with three generations of her family — what the elderly regard as the greatest fortune. She raised me and my siblings, and was well taken care of in her old age.
In today’s China, I don’t know how many of the 185 million old people — referring to those aged over 60 — can share my grandma’s fortune. The rapid economic development, the urbanization, the much smaller family sizes and a more mobile society have loosened family ties and broken the traditional system of old-age care.
The findings of the China health and retirement longitudinal study of Peking University, released in May, indicate that only 38 percent of the old people in China share the same roof with their offspring. Millions of farmers have left their poverty-stricken villages in search of a better life in the city; the educated urban dwellers also move away in droves to wherever jobs or opportunities take them. Young people prefer to set up their own homes, even if they live in the same city as their parents.
In response to the ever louder complaints by ageing parents of being abandoned, China this month introduced a new law, “the protection of the rights and interests of elderly people,” which demands that adult children visit their parents often, as well as offering emotional support. As a centrally powered government, China readily takes up the legal weapon to cope with its issues. However, I am not sure this law can work effectively.
Filial piety, once a cherished virtue, is now taking a back seat in China’s increasingly individualist society. The faster pace of life and the higher work pressure make it harder for the children to spare time for their parents. Yet it is a moral and a private issue. It is debatable if the authorities can effectively change the situation by introducing a law.
In some cases, it is simply a question of feasibility. Many migrants can only afford the time and money to visit home once a year, usually during the Lunar New Year, the occasion for family reunions.
In the face of the vastness of China’s ageing population problem — more severe than any other country in the world — the enacting of the law feels to me like trying to put out a fire with a glass of water. A massive, gray tidal wave will soon hit China. The number of old people will leap from 185 million to 478 million by 2053, according to the China national committee on ageing. It means that 35 percent of the total population will enter the so-called “gray tide,” compared with the world average of 20 percent. The startling percentage stems from the combination of the dramatic demographic change, caused by the family planning policy which was introduced in 1979, and a considerable increase in life span — from 41 to 73 over the past five decades.
Xiao Jinming (肖金明), a law professor at Shandong University, who took part in the drafting of the law, was quoted as saying that it is primarily aimed at raising awareness of the old people’s jing shen xu qiu — translated as “mental need” or “spiritual need.”
When I called my mother and asked for her take on this mental need of elderly people, she said: “Old people often feel lonely and empty in their empty nests and sometimes feel abandoned if they hear nothing from their children.”
She added that if her children can visit her when they can, call a couple of times every month and send her postcards when they travel — anything that makes her feel that they care — then her emotional needs are fulfilled.
My parents live alone in my hometown, Nanjing. I myself have long migrated to the capital. Every year, I make the 1,000km journey home (actually only four hours by the speed train) about half a dozen times, dutifully and slightly grudgingly (given half a chance, mother would nag me to find a husband and a proper job). Luckily, my sister and brother live nearby and pop over frequently.
In the next 10 to 15 years, people reaching old age will have fewer children with them as the family planning policy bears its fruit.
The demographic trends will cause increasing constraints to the family-centered old-age support system. The government will have to invest vigorously to improve its poor social provisions for the elderly, building affordable retirement homes, expanding the rural pension program and offering subsidized, if not free, medical care for the old.
To combat China’s great task of caring for the gray population, a joint effort by the government, society, family and individuals is needed. Otherwise, millions of old people will face a bleak future of poverty and loneliness.