Tue, October 07, 2008
China > Mainland

Putting aside space for an aging population

2008-10-07 02:38:46 GMT2008-10-07 10:38:46 (Beijing Time) China Daily

Old couple attend a celebration of their "gold marriage" in a park in Changning district, Shanghai on October 6, 2008. [CFP]

Steamed buns in the shape of gold ingot and peach are displayed in a plate to celebrate the Chongyang festival, a traditional festival to respect the elderly. This year's Chongyang Festival falls on October 7. [CFP]

Residents wait for their haircuts in Nanjing Road, Shanghai, on Aug 20. People get free haircuts and repairs of small items such as umbrellas, radios and watches on the 20th of every month, in line with a 20-year-old service for the community. [CFP]

Four years ago when his wife died, Wang Zhende, 88, decided to rent out his apartment and moved into the Quyang Neighborhood Retirement Home in the north of Shanghai.

Wang has been living with his 77-year-old roommate, Ren Zeru, in a 15-sq-m room on the third floor of the home. The monthly rent rose from 800 yuan ($117) to 950 yuan this year.

Every day, Wang gets up at about 5 am and practices tai chi.

"Daytime passes quickly and I go to bed at about 6 pm," Wang said.

With an aging population and rising demand for retirement homes in the city, many will consider Wang lucky.

Shanghai, one of the first places in the country that is seeing negative population growth, is aging fast and trying to address the problems that go with the worrying trend.

By the end of last year, there were about 70,000 beds at Shanghai's 560 retirement homes. At the same time, more than 20 percent of Shanghai's permanent residents, or 2.86 million, were aged above 60, official figures showed. That percentage is considered to be one of the highest in the country. By 2030, it is expected to increase to more than 33 percent.

Senior citizens in the city have an average life span of 81, according to official statistics.

Meanwhile, the number of people of working age - 15 to 59 - has been in decline, as a result of the one-child policy. That figure is expected to keep declining in the next decade.

Younger generations seeking more independence and freedom have also tended to live with their own family, instead of staying with an extended family with their parents or even grandparents.

Similarly, both Wang Zhende and Ren Zeru think that with societal development and an aging population, living in a retirement home is no longer considered the worst way to spend the remaining years of one's life.

The four-story Quyang Neighborhood Retirement Home is situated in the middle of a block of old residential buildings built in the 1980s. It is home to 62 residents aged 60 to 100, with two or three of them sharing one room. In Wang's room, there are two beds, two tables, a TV, an electric fan and an air-conditioner.

"I feel happy to live here with no need to worry about meals," Wang said.

The Quyang neighborhood committee decided to turn an old house into the retirement home a decade ago, in response to the government's request to build more facilities to accommodate the increasing number of aging people in Shanghai. The home has 24 bedrooms, two shared bathrooms on each floor, a game room, a playground, kitchen and office.

However, it is far from being able to meet the demand.

Zhu Hangmei, director of the retirement home, said people always ask her when a bed will be available.

"I have to disappoint them very often," she said.

Gui Shixun, vice-president of the Shanghai Association of Gerontology, said that most seniors' homes, except luxury and expensive ones, are full. "The percentage of beds that can accommodate old people that needs intensive care is also low," he said.

"It is often the situation that there will be a bed available only when someone dies."

Zhu admitted that her retirement home does not accept people that are in poor health - considered a common practice in most retirement homes in the city.

"To solve the problems of an aging population, we still have to depend on families and communities," Gui said.

"I would suggest old people who are able to take care of themselves stay at their own homes, leaving beds at retirement homes for those who are most in need of them."

To plug the gaps from rising demand, the city government has been building more neighborhood facilities and community services.

From 2005, several neighborhoods in downtown Xuhui, Putuo and Jing'an districts began providing meals to senior residents at affordable prices. About 135,000 senior citizens in Shanghai's 210 neighborhoods can currently have such meals at neighborhood canteens.

At the Jing'an Temple neighborhood, senior citizens pay 300 yuan a month to cover all their meals and 100 yuan more for services such as laundry, bathing and massaging. Those who are too weak to leave their homes can get home-care services.

More than 120 day-care centers and 5,000 game rooms have also been built for the elderly.

A plan by the authorities aims to have 90 percent of the city's permanent residents aged above 60 living at home, 7 percent staying at home and going to neighborhood day-care centers and 3 percent of the group living in retirement homes, by 2010.

By that time, the number of beds in the city's retirement homes is also expected to hit 100,000.

With such day-care services by then, old citizens like Wang Zhende and Ren Zeru, who go to retirement homes because they are unable to arrange meals on their own, will probably choose to stay home instead, Zhu Hangmei said.

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