In contrast to staid grumblings about gray skies and traffic gridlock, one of the compliments about Beijing I always hear from foreign visitors to the Chinese capital is the consideration given to the elderly.
Seeing subway and bus passengers quickly rise to surrender their seats to seniors, or service staff clear the way for arriving elderly customers, can be refreshing reprieves to the infamously brusque behavior from more than 17 million people trying to keep pace with a growing metropolis.
So it was surprising to find out that care for the elderly is a growing cause of concern in the country.
For one, many children born in the 1980s under the family planning policy are faced with mounting difficulties in providing for parents as the only child. Rising property prices and other living costs in cities add to the challenges, with many children having to leave "empty nests" for their parents at home in order to make a living in urban areas.
Nearly 80 million seniors aged 60 and above in China are said to be living in such empty nests, with no children to take care of them, official figures show.
The number of people in the country aged over 60 hit 169 million at the end of 2008 alone, making up 13 percent of the population and higher than the international bracket of 10 percent for aging societies.
Among the 169 million, about half are reportedly living in empty nests.
A more daunting statistic is that up to 9 million people in the country are reportedly reaching the age of 60 every year, with the number of elderly expected to hit 248 million in the next decade, making up about a fifth of the population.
Within that time, 2.5 people will be expected to support one retiree, according to the official figures.
The aged population may increase to 200 million by 2014, according to authorities, and more than 32 million elderly are also said to require various sorts of permanent care.
To be sure, respect for elders is a distinguishing feature of Chinese culture and embedded in the Chinese psyche at a very young age.
The fruits of such learning are reaped from young Chinese people's seemingly subconscious ability to yield to their seniors at every opportunity.
But that is also why the foundation for the "hardware" to complement such intrinsic support for the old must look beyond the country's nascent development and be laid now, for future generations.
Already, care for the aged is facing challenges of a developing country. China has about 40,000 nursing facilities with about 2.4 million beds, official statistics show.
Healthcare workers for the sector are also feeling the strain, with just 30,000 of certified personnel for disabled seniors. At least 10 million of the professionals are reportedly needed.
As cities grow and urban areas extend their reach into the backcountry, more people could have the propensity to lead lives of greater isolation away from their families.
Greater support for the elderly such as healthcare, home nursing, transportation, housing, quality of life and social security must be improved and ensured, while similar avenues for those who might have to grow old alone should also be offered.
Building on the Chinese core values of respect for seniors in these ways will help the country age gracefully.
(China Daily 01/08/2010 page8)