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China's rural elderly left alone

2013-12-06 08:53 Xinhua Web Editor: Mo Hong'e

Zhu Chengyu strolls around her countryside courtyard as a form of exercise. Old age and illness blight her daily life.

The 78-year-old woman, who lives in Zhuhe village of Dong'e County in eastern China's Shandong Province, has been admitted to hospital five times this year for asthma and heart disease.

Medical expenses costing thousands of yuan was partly covered by basic medical insurance. The remainder, around 2,000 yuan, was a large sum for Zhu.

She has no other source of earnings apart from a monthly pension of 65 yuan (10.5 US dollars) and an annual payment of 800 yuan, which she gets from renting her 2.5 mu (0.17 hectares) of crop land.

What worries Zhu most is when she becomes ill. Nobody is around to take her to hospital.

"My only son and his wife work as migrants in cities and seldom come back home," Zhu said. "I am left alone."

Zhu's case is not rare.

In China, most young people in rural areas flock to cities to earn more money, leaving behind their elderly family.

Many villages, as a result, are becoming desolate, with only elderly people living in them.

In Nalong village of Fusui County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, 200 elderly people were left with no choice but to establish an association to care for each other.

According to statistics from the Office of the National Committee of Aging, China has 194 million people aged at or over 60. Of the total, 120 million are from the countryside, and 40 percent of rural elderly are left uncared for.

Older people in the countryside used to be cared for by their children. But times have changed.

Most elderly people are relatively poor and unlike their urban peers, they have no money to pay for services. Meanwhile, elderly care services funded by local authorities are limited as most money is invested in cities.

From 2009, China allocated no less than 55 yuan per month to rural residents aged 60 or over. Today, because of rising costs the money does not go far.

"We can not buy many things with 60 yuan a month. The price of flour, edible oil, meat, eggs and rice have all gone up," said Liu Zhiping, a villager in Yishui county of Shandong Province.

The 64-year-old plants three mu of crops. He has no other source of income. With the basic pension not going very far, he struggles.

Lu Jiehua, Professor of sociology at Peking University, blamed inadequate fiscal investment and the economic and social development gap between cities and the countryside.

"Governments at various levels have long been paying more attention to elderly care in cities rather than in the countryside," said Lu.

Shandong has 10 million rural people aged over 59. But it only has 1,852 nursing homes with 242,340 beds, nearly 2.4 beds per 100 elderly people. This is half the international standard of five beds per 100 elderly people.

The conventional preference for support at home also hinders the development of elderly care services.

If older people are sent to nursing homes, their children are then seen as unfilial.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government wants to see improvements in elderly care services in the countryside. The issue is becoming more prominent in an aging society.

In a guideline unveiled in mid September, the State Council, or China's cabinet, ordered lower-level authorities to increase investment in elderly nursing services in rural areas, and to attract private investment.

"The improvement in rural elderly caring services needs not only more government investment, but also a careful design of sustainable multi-models," said Prof. Lu.

The Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which concluded last month, approved a package of reforms that allows rural residents to transfer and rent land.

The rural population will be awarded more property rights by allowing them to sell land use rights and the new source of earnings could help some finance their elderly care, said Gao Liping, a researcher at the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences.

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