Yan Meiyue, 90, said her 72-year-old daughter rarely visited, even for the annual Spring Festival, when families traditionally reunite. So Yan, a widow since her husband’s death nearly a decade ago, spends every weekday at a modest community center near her home, where she plays mahjong and eats meals prepared by a volunteer staff.
“The volunteers keep us company,” she said with a smile, her voice tapering off.
Yan is one of a rapidly growing number of self-described “orphan grandparents” who feel personally or financially abandoned in a society that traditionally has treated its elders with a respect bordering on reverence.
For generations, elderly Chinese citizens could count on having a place in multi-generational households, where their children could treat them in infirmity. But today this ancient social contract is giving way as the Chinese economy booms, prying apart families with job opportunities in distant cities or abroad.
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Nongovernmental organizations, nursing homes and provincial governments increasingly are picking up the slack, said Robert Stowe England, an expert on population aging who’s the author of the 2005 book “Aging China.”
China’s government has taken notice of the trend. Starting July 1, a new, broad law allows parents to take their children to court for not visiting them “often.” The law was passed after state media reported mistreatment of the elderly, including the story of a grandmother in her 90s who was forced to live in a pigpen for two years.
“The tradition in China is that the son is responsible for care of elderly parents,” England said. “The sons are now moving to the city, and it weakens that link.”
Ma Qiaoying, 82, one of Yan’s neighbors, said that one of her sons worked as an executive for Germany’s autobahn highway system; another works in Canada as a mechanical engineer. Each visits her once a year.
While student volunteers come to her community to sing and dance twice a week, Ma depends on other elderly friends for support, she said.
“We’re like a big family,” Ma said. “We can talk to each other and share our problems.”
Retired businessman Jiang Gong Liang said he’d moved more than 500 miles from China’s Shandong province to Shanghai to be closer to his daughter. He frequents Lu Xun Park, a Shanghai park that’s popular with retirees, and passes the time by playing the violin-like huqin for passers-by.
“You don’t have to play well to enjoy it,” he said, after entertaining a small crowd.
Jiang said he was happier now that he could see his daughter daily, but he admitted that he misses his home to the north, where his family lived for many years.
China’s one-child policy, instituted in the 1970s and ruthlessly enforced until recently, will make aging more difficult for the elderly in the coming decades because there are fewer children, England said.
Though popular support is deteriorating for the population-control effort, the damage has been done for China’s post-retirement age citizens.
About 1.34 billion people live in China, including about 180 million people over 60, the latest retirement age.
By 2050, the United Nations projects, those 65 and older will represent more than 25 percent of China’s population – more than 333 million people, which would far outnumber the elderly of the United States, Canada, Japan and all of Europe combined, according to England’s research.
Respect for elders is a central tenet of Confucianism, the system of values that’s been the foundation of traditional Chinese society. But it began to fall out of favor when Mao Zedong’s communists seized power in 1949.
For instance, the high-rise apartment buildings that clutter Shanghai are a far cry from the traditional siheyuan-style housing of dynastic China.
In a siheyuan – translated as quadrangle – three generations would live in buildings that surrounded a common courtyard. Elders lived in the northern building; the oldest son and his family lived in the eastern building. They stood as practical symbols of an extended family’s wealth and power.
The new parental-visitation law may indicate that the government is looking for ways to offset the costs of its expanding public-pension system by appealing to Confucian ethics, said Chen Honglin, an assistant professor of social work at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Until then, in the absence of children to keep them company, China’s elderly find other ways to occupy themselves.
Every morning, Wang Pei Lan, a retiree who lives in downtown Shanghai, comes with her husband to Lu Xun Park. Her three children work at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, but she said they weren’t able to visit often enough.
“We have nothing to do at home,” Wang said, while busily knitting under a large tree.
At the Xintu Center for Community Health Promotion in Shanghai – a large NGO that focuses on care for elderly and sick people and those with disabilities – many of the volunteers are retirement-age people looking to help others, project manager Zhang Yan said.
The brand-new four-story center stands as an anomaly in its old neighborhood, supported by a vast network of private and corporate donors. While its top floors shine with modernity, its bottom floor, smelling like a toilet, is a reminder of the challenges ahead for China’s elderly.
This floor provides services to about 600 people with dementia, in addition to thousands of others. Many gather around televisions; others walk about aimlessly.
Some of the elderly struggle with loneliness and, in a few cases, depression, Zhang said. The oldest without children nearby often hurt the most, she said.
So the center offers resources that include a psychological help line, weekly group meetings and routine visits from a hospital.
Two-thirds of the center’s retiree volunteers reported that they felt depressed, she said, and referring them to the services they need can be a challenge.
“Chinese people like to help each other, but sometimes they need the help,” Zhang said.
Daily life in Lu Xin park in Shanghai, China
The every day social life in the Lu Xin Park