With four grown-up children, ample savings and her own house, Lee Hua thought she could live out her golden years in modest comfort. Now, the 77-year-old collects recyclable garbage to make ends meet.
In a slow and frail voice, Lee explained how she was forced out of her home and now lives in a shabby rented house outside Taipei, has no money left in the bank and has all but lost contact with her three daughters and one son.
“I’ve cried so much that my eyesight has become really poor. Now I try not to think too much about what happened,” she said, sitting amid the piles of used cartons, plastic bottles and milk powder cans she has picked up from the street.
Lee, who earns NT$500 a month selling trash to recycling businesses, represents a new group of Taiwanese seniors left to their own devices by a young generation that is more dismissive of traditional notions of filial piety.
Lee’s life took a turn for the worse 13 years ago when her oldest daughter and son-in-law talked the then recently-widowed woman into loaning them most of her money for his business.
They never returned the money and have since disappeared from her life altogether, she recalled, fighting back tears.
“I never thought I’d end up with a son-in-law like that who cheated me out of all my money. This must be fate,” she said.
Lee’s second daughter also ignores her and her only son is in prison for drug abuse, she said. While her youngest daughter stays in touch, she cannot offer financial support because of her limited income as a seamstress.
Nearly 2,800 seniors sought assistance as a result of abuse, neglect or abandonment in 2010, according to the latest government data, up from 2,100 in 2009.
The actual number is likely much higher as some fear the loss of “face” that would come with admitting to having unfilial children, Elders Foundation executive director Lee Hsiung (李雄) said in Taipei.
Social workers say Lee’s case is hardly unique, saying that shifting family values mean a diminished sense of responsibility in some adults toward their ageing parents.
Traditional Chinese culture attaches great importance to filial piety and male adults, even married ones, normally lived with their parents to look after them.
“Raising a child means safety in old age,” according to a popular saying, and that used to be true. Large families were the norm.
Today, family structure has changed as couples opt for fewer children. As a result, Taiwan’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, while more adults choose to live alone amid rising individualism, sociologists say.
However, Taiwan’s population of 23 million is graying rapidly, with people aged 65 and over accounting for 10.7 percent, well above the 7 percent level at which the WHO defines a society as officially “ageing.”
Wu Chiang-sheng, a staffer at the Elders Foundation in Taipei, said he has handled even more serious cases than Lee’s, citing a 90-year-old woman with seven children, each “insisting it is the other’s duty to take care of her.”
The government is considering a bill to jail adults who fail to look after their elderly parents for up to one year, following a rise in the number of abandonment cases.
A form of economic abuse referred to as “gnawing at the bones of the old” sees healthy, capable and even well-educated adults — even those in their 30s and 40s — choosing to remain jobless and live with their parents, relying on them for money, Wu said.
Unemployment in Taiwan was 4.18 percent in January, though joblessness in the 15 to 24 age group was 11.64 percent.
Other seniors wind up having to raise their grandchildren, as their children struggle to find jobs.
“I think people in their 40s and 50s should brace themselves and not expect their children to look after them in the future. They should actively plan for their life after retirement,” Lee Hsiung said.
The Federation for the Welfare of the Elderly has been promoting the concept of “elderly economic safety,” by encouraging senior citizens to put their money in a trust.
Others have called for a rethink of the entire notion that it is the responsibility of the young to look after the old.
“Young people do not necessarily make more money or are more capable,” said Chiou Tian-juh (邱天助), a sociologist at Shih Hsin University in Taipei. “We should build a new concept based on the capable caring for the less capable.”
Social workers say it is up to the government to assume a greater role in the care of the elderly, because the traditional approach of leaving it to the young is clearly unraveling.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has called taking care of senior citizens a “major challenge” for his government, which plans to enact a new law on long-term care for the elderly in about 2017.
This year, the government is scheduled to start a trial of a “reverse mortgage” program for the childless elderly, who will be allowed to mortgage their houses to a bank for a monthly allowance while still living in the properties until their deaths.
However, Lee Hua remains skeptical about how much help the government can provide.
“The government can’t do very much, especially since the economy is bad,” she said. “I only hope that one day my son will get a decent job so he can take care of me.”
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