Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 17 News List

China's gray revolution

As its population ages rapidly, Shanghai may become a city of Zimmer frames within 30 years and could soon face manpower shortages

By Howard French  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

As remote as many of these problems may seem today in Shanghai, the country's most prosperous city, evidence of the changes is already on abundant display. If Shanghai represents the future of China, it is in central Shanghai's Jingan district, where roughly 4,000 people, or 30 percent of the residents, are above 60, that one can glimpse that future.

Squads of lightly trained social workers monitor the city's older residents, paying regular house visits aimed at combating isolation and assuring that medical problems are attended to.

At 10am on a recent spring morning, Chen Meijuan walked up a narrow wooden stairway to the second-floor apartment where Liang Yunyu has lived for the last 58 years.

"Good morning, granny," Chen called out as she entered the 100-year-old woman's small bedroom, which is filled with old wooden furniture and wall hangings with calligraphy honoring her centenary. "Did you have a good night's sleep"

Chen, 49, earns about US$95 a month as one of 15 agents who are responsible for monitoring the neighborhood's elderly population. Her caseload includes more than 200 seniors.

"I usually pay visits to about five or six households a day, stay a little while and chat with them, she said. For Grandma Liang I am a little more focused, visiting two or three times a week. I can basically handle all the people I'm responsible for, even though you feel a bit overwhelmed at the beginning."

After being introduced to a foreign visitor, Liang regaled her guests with stories, ranging across the decades of the 20th century. In the space of a few minutes, she recounted the arrival of Japanese invaders in the city nearly 70 years ago, her opening of a kindergarten in 1958 and her husband's arrest and death in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago.

"My daughter always invites me to live with her family, but I feel embarrassed to be with them," Liang told a visitor, pausing from her tales. "I'm worried I might die in her home, so I prefer staying where I am."

Her son, Zha Yuheng, 76, a grandfather and retired textile industry worker, lives with her now, which also concerns her. "I am taken good care of here," she said, "but living with my son leaves him with a big burden, I'm afraid."

Zha protested that his mother was little trouble at all. "Every morning I get water for her and make sure it is not too hot or too cold, and she handles everything else on her own," he said. "She gets up, dresses, makes the beds and even makes food for herself."

In many wealthy societies the very old are candidates for nursing home care. That sector is still tiny in China, though, especially compared with the size of elderly population. Zhang Minsheng opened the city's first private nursing home in 1998, a rambling 350-bed affair in an industrial area far from central Shanghai. It is now 95 percent occupied.

"People were not willing to enter nursing homes in the past, because they were considered places for those without descendants," Zhang said. "Now, from the standpoint of ordinary people, it is becoming a normal thing."

The average age of the residents of Zhang's home is 85, and most live several to a room, sleeping on narrow beds separated by flimsy partitions. Many pass the daytime hours in long corridors furnished with chairs, where they chat or simply stare into the distance.

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