Chinese Cities facing the Challenge of an Ageing Population
It is estimated that by 2050, China’s population will have 500 million people that are 60 years old or over. Recent events have confirmed the importance of this new societal challenge, including the increase of suicide rates among China’s elderly population, particularly in the countryside. In light of these tragic events, Chinese authorities are being urged to reconsider more adaptive and responsive support systems, healthcare options, and social services for China’s growing population of seniors.
Further complicating the problem, imbalances between supply and demand exist on different scales. At municipal level, supply is often unequally distributed. In the countryside, healthcare and public services are often severely lacking. Further accentuating the loneliness of many seniors here is the rural exodus of the working-age population, who have left for the city in search of jobs and better opportunities. In the city, however, issues are most often the implementation, spatial distribution, and the occupation of old-age homes for the elderly population. A 2011 study investigating residential healthcare structures in Beijing reveals critical imbalances in the services provided within the central spaces of the city and those available at its periphery.
As debates on how best to optimize available resources continue, questions and concerns have emerged around the social significance and implications of organizing a new elderly residential system that in many ways flies in the face of China’s traditional values of filial piety and community life. How are local authorities and urban planners managing the challenges of this new elderly service industry? Who is in charge of the implementation and oversight of these services, and how will they be adapted (or not) to China’s social and cultural context?
The Chinese government appears to be reluctant to give further comment to these questions, reasserting the often repeated statistic of “90-7-3”: 90% of China’s seniors still live at home, 7% receive government assistance, and 3% receive private care. The immense and rapidly growing number of China’s aging population is a new and largely unanticipated social phenomenon, one that many of China’s officials, experts, and advisors have little experience in. As such, experimental policies and programs could mean both high social and economic costs. Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has authorized domestic and foreign private companies and non-governmental organizations to invest in the flourishing market of services and homecare for the elderly. Private sector investors, most often employing western-style approaches and systems of care, are often not adapted to the Chinese cultural context. Further, many of the services they offer can be quite costly, and thus accessible only to a small portion of the rich elite.
Yet there are some private investors who have recently changed their strategies, proposing more adaptive systems of care more in line with the lifestyles and needs of Chinese seniors today. According to researcher Dr. Feng, many of China’s seniors prefer assisted or more independent living spaces than the highly controlled and regimented atmosphere of many old age and retirement homes. Among the diverse foreign investors, France seems to have a head above its competition, as its seniors’ healthcare methods and the logic of its public-private partnership has proven quite attractive to many local Chinese authorities. Other private initiatives are also trying to adapt to the particular needs China’s elderly. Among these new projects is Shanghai Starcastle Senior Living, an organization that offers seniors individual apartments and assisted housing. Located just on the outskirts of Beijing, Sun City is a housing community that proposes an innovative approach to senior care by mobilizing the latest in personal assistance technologies. Finally, Saturn 3 offers personalized help to seniors through an e-service platform.
More recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) has created a guide with recommendations on how to manage the increasingly global issue of aging populations. Based on this report, the WHO in 2010 launched a project entitled Shanghai Age Friendly City Housing Renovation in partnership with two NGOs, Habitat for Humanity and the Shanghai Senior Citizens Foundation, inviting the Shanghai community to also take part in the project. According to the China Daily, Shanghai ranks among the highest in terms of the quality of its seniors’ healthcare services, largely due to the management and development of local associations run by the community.