Business / Aging challenges

Struggling elderly a challenge for China

(Xinhua) Updated: 2012-10-25 21:46

BEIJING - At 102 years of age, Wang Zhenrong struggles to eke out a living selling shoes insoles on a Beijing street late into the night, gulping down a single cold bun for dinner and refraining from taking breaks to go to the bathroom or drink water.

His story sparked widespread sympathy after it was exposed on the Internet on Tuesday. People flooded in from every corner of the city to buy insoles. For the first time in five years, Wang's insoles were sold out and he was able to go home early Wednesday evening.

The widower, born in 1910, sews removable insoles during the day and sells them at night. Wang has three children, all retirees who are either unable or reluctant to care for him.

His most frequent customers are sympathetic students from two nearby universities, who often buy more insoles than they actually need, bring him hot meals and help him at his "stall": an old baby carriage that also serves as his only means of transportation.

Wang's story has led many to consider the plight of elderly Chinese who have no one to take care of them, as he is not the only senior citizen struggling to get by.

A 78-year-old woman from impoverished Henan province in central China has been in the spotlight since last year for peddling her own paintings on the streets of the southern boom city of Shenzhen.

The old woman lives with her husband in a hut in Shenzhen, saying they are too poor to survive in their hometown.

While we respect these men and women for their tenacity and dignity -- struggling to make a living with their own hands, rather than begging for sympathy and aid -- their troubles are forcing society to face a looming crisis that could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the world's second-largest economy.

As 14 percent of Chinese are aged 60 or above, inadequate care for the elderly people has proven to be a serious problem.

China had 190 million people at or above the age of 60 at the end of last year. By 2050, one-third of Chinese will be over 60 years of age.

Many senior citizens are people who were laid off and forced to retire early from state firms during the drastic industrial reforms of the 1990s, parents of the one-child generation whose only children are working away from home and parents who have, for one reason or another, been deprived of contact or care from their only children.

Society has a larger role to play in caring for these people and relieving their pain and loneliness.

While a revival of traditional values centering on filial piety is essential, it is equally important for the government to take action.

Central and local governments should work out policies to guarantee adequate pension and social welfare for the elderly so they don't have to worry about taking care of their basic needs.

The country is also in dire need of nursing homes to accommodate "empty nesters" and senior citizens who are not properly cared for at home.

Even in big cities like Beijing, senior care still lags far behind demand: the city's nursing homes have a total of 82,000 beds for senior citizens, while demand is estimated to be between 120,000 and 150,000 beds.

Adequate care for the elderly is an essential part of China's objective of building a "harmonious society".

Improving care for senior citizens could give a boost to the country's future, as well as shape the younger generation's value system and increase their confidence in the country's future -- as well as their own.

The young may represent our future, but the old represent the present. Finding a way to provide enough care for senior citizens will test the wisdom of both society and the government. It may be a tough task to tackle, but effective solutions will ultimately serve China's long-term interests.

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