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Print Edition> Business
UPDATED: December 6, 2010 NO. 49 DECEMBER 9, 2010
An Age-old Old-age Dilemma
More facilities and caregivers are needed to help China's elderly enjoy the twilight of their lives

LEARNING TO SURF: Seniors in Kaixuan Community in Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province, are curious about learning to surf the Internet in the community's senior center (YANG XINYUE)

Zhang Lilan, a 65-year-old Beijing resident, was finally admitted to her top choice retirement home at the Beijing No.1 Social Welfare Institution in June after waiting for more than four years.

"I'm lucky. More than 4,000 others are still waiting and some even applied as early as 2004," said Zhang. "I volunteered to take care of the elderly here years ago, which helped me get enrolled earlier."

Located between the city's north third and fourth ring roads, the home is adjacent to several hospitals. It also boasts its own government-approved hospital for seniors, she said.

"The food here is good and the activities are wonderful. I've already learned paper cutting and drawing techniques," she said.

Those 4,000 seniors still waiting to get into the Beijing No.1 Social Welfare Institution are a fraction of more than 150 million senior citizens in China. The country is now facing challenges in caring for its elderly, representing more than 10 percent of its total population.

An aging society

A country is defined as an "aging society" when 10 percent of its population is 60 years old or older, according to international standards. China became an aging society as early as 1999.

In 2009, the number of people aged 60 and above reached 167.14 million, accounting for 12.5 percent of its total population, according to the China National Committee on Aging (CNCA).

The aging group also grows quickly. Last year, China saw the largest annual increase in its senior population, with the number of people aged 60 and above increasing by 7.25 million, said the CNCA. If this growth speed continues, the number of people aged 60 and above could reach a peak of 437 million in 2050.

Moreover, nearly half of the aged people are "empty-nest" parents, that is, one or both parents living by themselves after their children have left the home. CNCA estimated that 49.7 percent of elderly persons in urban areas live in "empty nests." In rural areas, 48.9 percent of the elderly live alone or with grandchildren since their working children often migrate seeking jobs in cities.

Among the 167 million elderly, 11.4 percent or 18.99 million are aged 80 and above, 9.4 million are disabled and 18.94 million are partially disabled, consisting of a group of more than 40 million who can't take care of themselves.

Untapped market

Compared with the large aging population, both retirement homes and caregivers are in short supply.

China now has 38,060 retirement homes, with 2.66 million beds, accommodating 2.1 million people, said Dou Yupei, Vice Minister of Civil Affairs.

The number of beds only accounts for 1.59 percent of the total senior population. The proportion is much lower than the 5-7 percent of developed countries, and is even less than some developing countries like Brazil's 3 percent, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

If 5 percent of the elderly population were to be living in retirement homes, China would need more than 8 million beds. So far, there are only 2.6 million. To make up the difference, at least 5.5 million beds should be added, said Ma Fengli, Vice Director of the Department of Social Security and Silver Industry at the China Research Center on Aging. In doing so, a market worth 300 billion yuan ($45 billion) will be created.

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