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China facing rapidly growing aging population
By Dwight Daniels (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-01-07 09:26

Yang Zhi, a 74-year-old retired civil servant in Beijing, took a two-hour bus ride this week to travel to a special donation centre to give money to a tsunami-relief fund.

Yang, who with his wife, gets by on a monthly pension of 2,000 yuan (US$240). They donated a fourth of their monthly income, or 500 yuan (US$60).

"We couldn't find a donation site in our community," Yang told a China Daily reporter.

The couple, like thousands of other Chinese senior citizens, felt compelled to assist their Asian sisters and brothers in need, despite the long bus ride and the monetary sacrifice.

Another story told of a contribution from a 104-year-old woman, giving all she could afford.

One reads many stories of remarkable kindness occurring at this sad time throughout China. These accounts touch the heart. China's old care about the world.

But do we care about them?

Of course we do, but I fear it is not enough. I fear there is another wave of need that could hit much closer to home, in the very country that is now so generously helping others.

This wave isn't, thankfully, a tsunami. And it won't be making any big headlines, because there are no shocking visuals of buildings being flattened or people being swept away so that television can loop them to show time and time again.

Yet, it is a staggering crisis in the making, and it involves people of Yang's age, most of whom are not so lucky as to have government pensions to get by on.

The State Family Planning and Population Commission, the nation's leading population think-tank and policy shaper, predicts that from 2000 to 2007, the number of residents 65 or older will grow throughout the nation from just under 100 million to more than 200 million.

That means a jump in elders of more than 4 million per year, with their numbers making up as much as 14 per cent of the population by 2007. And the total is expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming decades.

The commission forecasts that the likely proportion of the population 65 or older will surge to 24 per cent by 2050.

China could suddenly find itself with 400 million elderly mouths to feed by around 2050, quadrupling the number in the population today. That's more than all the people currently living in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Declining fertility rates and prolonged life expectancies are the two main factors behind the fast-growing ageing population, according to Chinese sociologists.

The situation is asking for a tenacious social security system, which today, at best, is patchy.

Things are made worse by the economic changes altering the Chinese landscape.

National talk shows are rife with pundits worrying about the breakdown of traditional cultural practices in which children traditionally take care of parents in their old age.

Inter-generational ties are suffering as grown children are forced to move away by the demands of finding work, and many now say the cost of living in a more modern world means that they are barely able to take care of their immediate offspring, much less their parents.

And what about the millions of Chinese elders who are childless? Sociologists and those who participated in a recent Beijing forum have called for the establishment of an efficient social security system that can provide a way to help the nation's elderly.

While the country has more than 40,000 elderly homes for the elderly at the moment, they provide accommodations to a mere 1 per cent of the ageing population.

Most of the elderly prefer to stay at home to enjoy their later years. A complete community care system needs to be established to provide in-time, open-door services to them. Before the grey wave hits.

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