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China's Elder Care Law a Struggle for One-Child Families

  • VOA News

A new law in China requires adults to provide mental and financial support for their elderly parents, or face fines and other penalties. The regulation entered into force earlier this month, adding new burdens on a generation of urban single children who struggle to live up to traditional standards of filial piety.

Chinese families used to live three generations under one roof, but mounting work pressure is scattering members into different directions. With the need to find jobs, pursue careers and gain financial independence, many young people leave home. Older parents frequently are left behind.

Generations’ Strain

Han Yujing, manager of the Qianhe retirement home in Beijing, says it is easy for young generations of single children to lose touch with their parents.

“They live in a transition time where they have both older and younger generations to look after. Here they have their work and their career. They have to try and manage elder parents, family and work, allocating the right amount of energy and resources,” he says.

The nursing home opened for business this year. It accommodates about 50 people whose children are concerned with giving the kind of physical and mental care that they themselves are not able to provide.

“Children of people living here know that, beside material needs, spiritual life is also very important,” says Han Yujing.

One of the main reasons families are willing to pay monthly expenses of about $650 (4,000 yuan), he says, is that they want their parents to live with dignity and without loneliness in their twilight years while apart from their relatives.

Lu Jiehua, a professor of population studies at Peking University, says 90 percent of older people live off their family's support. However, as the number of children shrinks due to family planning policies, there are few supporting resources for the elderly.

“And now we have a floating population of more than 200 million, which means there are many elderly empty-nest or old people living alone,” he says.

An Elderly Dilemma

Lu Xinling, an 80-year-old retired school teacher in Beijing, felt like she was a burden when she was living at home with her family. Her relatives had no time to spend together and she was often at home alone.

“The kids come back at night and we only have Saturday and Sunday to get together. The rest of the time they go to work before I wake up and come back when I go to bed,” she says.

Routine daily tasks, such as cooking or doing the laundry, would stir conflict within the family unit. Lu started to feel the generation gap.

“Those who wish to have a career and raise a family at the same time have a huge burden; they have the heart but don’t have the strength,” she says.

Earlier this year, Lu Xinling moved into Qianhe nursing home, after she read an advertisement for it in a newspaper. It seemed the perfect solution: there’s a hospital nearby, rooms remind her of home and she even got a discount on the monthly fee.

“I’m not lonely here, if I want life I just go outside and meet people, if not I just stay in my room and watch TV,” she says.

Lu Xinling says she has found companionship with other residents, sharing interests and hobbies and chatting about problems they face. She says she keeps in touch with her family, calling home often and using the Internet.

Business For An Aging Society

By the end of the year in China there will be more than 200 million people over the age of 60 years. With the new law requiring adults to support elderly parents, many see a business opportunity.

Websites like Taobao, the online shopping platform, offer services to visit elderly parents in place of their families.

Since the start of this month, more than one hundred elderly care service providers have been registered on the website. They offer families an alternative way of demonstrating filian piety, at prices that range from around two dollars to more than $300.

However, Professor Lu Jiehua says caring for the emotional needs of parents is usually more difficult than ensuring their material well-being. Surrogate attention from external services will not make up for a lack of love.

“People who work in a different city send money home to their elderly parents and provide material support. But the biggest problem is when they get ill, who is going to look after them? These children live miles away. And the elders also suffer emotionally," he says.

And there are other moral questions that the law will not fix.

“The issue of filial piety and taking care of elder parents involve moral aspects that cannot be solved by enforcing a regulation,” says Lu Jiehua. “Even though the law can make a difference, it can also drift apart domestic affection, friendship and love for the elders.”

Earlier in July a woman in Jiangsu province was the first to sue her daughter for dereliction. A court ordered the young woman to pay compensation and visit her mother every two months.

Sustainable Care

In order to relieve younger generations from being the only ones responsible for their parents’ welfare, the Chinese government is now promoting more community and institutional support for the elderly.

Although many welcome the law, Lu Xinling has sympathy for younger generations under pressure.

“We can’t say they’re not filial. They are just unable to be so,” she says.

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