SPEED DIAL: A shortcut to a grocery shopping service for seniors from a community-based virtual nursing home support terminal (PENG ZHAOZHI)
Beijing's Haidian District has built 60 community-based elderly service centers, which provide day-care services for disabled seniors and other services such as rehabilitation, counseling, medical consultation on chronic diseases and meal delivery at prices subsidized by the government. After building or renting these facilities, the district government has contracted their operation to three agencies. The district, which will be home to an elderly population of 460,000 in 2015, has an ambitious plan to build a network of such centers so that all seniors will be within walking distances of a center by 2015.
In other parts of China, governments are also looking to innovate with new programs.
In September 2012, the government of Hedong District in Tianjin blazed the trail by contracting part of its virtual nursing home services to a home service company, Emotte, whose call center has a database of basic information and regular service needs of the "residents" of its virtual nursing home. The local government pays the bills for Emotte's services for seniors with financial difficulties, sets up service standards and regularly evaluates the company's performance.
Moreover, since the beginning of 2012 a total of 14 traditional nursing homes in Tianjin have begun offering door-to-door services to local seniors, a move that has proved economical while serving more customers.
"Building a virtual nursing home is both a low-cost and effective model for the government to take care of the aged," said Mu Xiangyou, a deputy to the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, from Tianjin. Mu said that this new approach takes seniors' emotional needs into consideration and will help meet the needs of China's aging society.
The fledgling industry of providing in-home care and services to the elderly is bound to boom as the market expands.
From the beginning of 2010, the Beijing Municipal Government began to issue a 100-yuan ($16.4) coupon to senior citizens over 80 every month, which can be used to pay at designated restaurants and for some domestic service companies.
Li Hongbing, Deputy Director of the Civil Affairs Bureau of Beijing, told state broadcaster China Central Television in August 2012 that the municipal government had granted coupons worth a total of 960 million yuan ($155 million), which spurned another 1 billion yuan ($161 million) in consumption from the elderly and formed a new market worth 2 billion yuan ($322 million).
Observers said that more resources from the private sector must be encouraged to enter the eldercare industry so as to ensure stable and sufficient investment in the long run.
Li Jiajun, President of Tianjin University, believes governments should initiate favorable policies and pump extra subsidies into elderly caretaking agencies as well as conventional care homes to assist their development.
"But governments are not omnipotent, and that means families and society should join together to contribute," Li told Xinhua News Agency.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs estimated in 2010 that China would need around 10 million professional elderly caretakers. In 2013 the ministry revealed that the country had less than 1 million elderly caretakers and only several thousand of them earned professional certification every year.
Zhang Surong, managing director of a domestic services company in Anshan City in northeast China's Liaoning Province, said that China should step up vocational training for elderly caretakers. He also suggests the government consider subsidizing the income of caretakers in community elderly care centers to increase the staff's stability and the profession's attractiveness to younger people.
In addition, authorities should ramp up supervision and raise the threshold for domestic service providers to ensure quality, Li said. "To guarantee the quality of healthcare, meals and so on, certain institutions need to be set up to supervise the services," he noted.
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