China has the world’s largest population of citizens over age 65 and in the coming decades their numbers are expected to quickly grow. Already, officials are struggling to cope with the rising numbers of elderly at a time when there is a shortage of nursing home beds and certified caregivers.
Feng Jie is a trained nurse who decided a year and half ago to leave her job at a state-run hospital and work with a private nursing company.
She says that unlike her job at the hospital, she now gets to spend more quality time with patients and as an added bonus her pay is better. Still, few have followed in her footsteps. "It was a risk [to come work here]. All of my classmates still work in hospitals. I thought that I'd give it a try because this industry, this type of job is still an emerging field,” she said.
China's population is aging at one of the fastest rates in the world. By the middle of the century, more than 450 million people will be over 60 years of age.
China lacks both the facilities and the staff to adequately care for the elderly, says Du Peng, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University - the only program of its kind in China. “We have four million beds available, one caretaker for every three elderly. We should have more than a million caretakers, if in the future we will have 30 million elderly then we need 10 million caretakers," she explained. "But at the moment in China every year only 6,000 gerontology professionals are certified.”
Right now most of China’s nursing homes are state owned, but through incentives to private enterprises, caregivers and stipends for the elderly, the government is looking to shake up the market.
Li Xinyue says such incentives helped her quickly find a job at a private nursing home after graduating. “When I was still in school I thought about where I would work afterwards, and at the time the government was issuing some policies to assist private institutions…there were many privately run institutions available, so there were more to choose from,” Li Xinyue stated.
In addition to cutting red tape to allow more foreign and private investment in elderly care, the government is testing ways to encourage caregivers to seek more training and keep certified nurses in the field.
“It is a bit like the reform of China 's economic system thirty years ago, when it was mostly state owned enterprises and there was a break with that and a promotion of economic development. Now we are seeing a similar thing with the break down of the bottleneck,” said Peng.
As more elderly Chinese turn to nursing homes for care, authorities hope investors see profit in the country’s demographic challenges, and add to the 400,000 nursing homes that now are mostly state run.