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Nursing homes losing stigma as society ages

By Bai Ping | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-30 07:54

Where do you want your parents to spend their twilight years? I've always thought my parents should do so in their own home, where they find peace of mind, body and soul.

The idea of my parents spending their old age in a public care facility never occurred to me until several months ago when, after a weekend family dinner, my mother told me that she and my father were thinking of looking for a nursing home after they had learned that some retirees were taken better care of there.

She said they were very worried about their declining health. A stroke left my father, 76, confined to bed and indoors for months two years ago, and he has since lived in constant fear of suffering another. My mother, 72, has developed some early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Although she is putting up a heroic fight against a fading memory, it is eroding her abilities to lead a normal life.

"But we can care for you as long as you live with us," I protested, with tales and film scenes of cold and grim nursing homes popping in my head. However, my words sounded weak even to my ears. Our life is an all-consuming, day-to-day challenge as we juggle work and raise a child in a frantic world. I'm saddened to realize there isn't much more we can do for my elderly parents besides providing them with a suburban home and taking my family to stay over during weekends.

Many other working professionals may also face the painful question sooner or later. A fast aging China is taking a toll on its traditional family care system now that fewer children are supporting more parents.

In a Confucius-influenced society that values filial piety, people used to be ashamed of leaving their parents in a nursing home. As a compromise between the conflicting demands of modernization and tradition, Beijing with millions of over-60 residents is pushing for a "90-6-4" elderly-care model, meaning 90 percent of the senior citizens will live at home, 6 percent in government-subsidized hospices and only 4 percent in public or private nursing homes.

After our discussion, but without my parents' knowledge, I did some research on the city's nursing homes to understand who are the senior citizens seeking refuge there and why. To my surprise, the nursing homes have attracted many people with a successful past and an independent mind, and a good public one is as hard to get in as a top primary school.

The capital's famous No. 1 Social Welfare Home claims to have about 10,000 applicants vying for the 1,100 beds. But the government-run institution, which charges thousands of yuan per berth per month, has created a controversy because its inmates are mostly retired government officials.

Luxury private homes complete with round-the-clock medical service demand steep prices but don't require a city residence permit. They target retirees with good pensions and sizable savings from across the country.

A couple staying in one such home at the foot of the Fragrant Hill on Beijing's western fringe told a local newspaper that they couldn't stay with their daughter's family because they couldn't stand their granddaughter practicing the piano, sometimes all day long. When the well-educated couple from Guangzhou moved to the family's suburban house, they felt lonely and the wife needed to communicate more with people because she was losing her memory. They were happier mingling with other inmates of the nursing home who were retired doctors, professors and yes, journalists.

My father, who is more interested in perusing newspapers than having his meals, has probably come across this story. Such accounts about strong-willed retirees seeking a more dignified existence and who don't want to become a burden on their children must have touched my parents deeply.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. Email:

(China Daily 03/30/2013 page5)

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