A community doctor in Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, checks blood pressure for elderly residents on January 4 (XINHUA)
Zhang Hao is a 70-year-old retired nurse. Since her husband passed away six years ago, she has lived alone in a 130-square-meter apartment in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province.
There's a saying in China that people should "bring up sons to support parents in their old age," but in Zhang's case her children are too busy with life and work. "I can't count on them to take care of me 24/7 since they have their own lives," Zhang said. "Sometimes, especially at night when I can't sleep, I worry that I might die alone without anyone noticing."
Last year, Zhang couldn't bear to live by herself any longer and decided to try and find other people in a similar situation to live with her. She called the hotline of Hangzhou Metropolis Express, a local newspaper that provides life services for its readers, in the hope that they could lend her a hand.
The newspaper published Zhang's story on the front page, together with an advertisement seeking to recruit like-minded elderly people who were interested in moving into Zhang's place to take care of each other.
Shortly after the advertisement's release nearly 200 applications came flooding in, while the news began gaining public attention nationwide. The phenomenon has been cutely termed "huddling and aging together."
Elderly women play cards at a nursing home in Dacheng County, north China's Hebei Province, on January 22 (XINHUA)
Trials and tribulations
China has an aging society. The Ministry of Civil Affairs published a report in August 2017 showing that the number of elderly citizens over the age of 60 topped 230 million in 2016, 16.7 percent of the country's population.
The State Council has predicted in a national plan on the development of elderly care services during the period of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) that China's senior population will reach 255 million by 2020.
An aging population will have a profound effect on society, underscoring the fiscal and social pressures that the healthcare, pension and social security systems of many countries are likely to face in the coming decades, according to a UN forecast.
In response to these coming changes and challenges, "huddling and aging together" can benefit both the lives of senior citizens and the development of China's society. However, Zhang has encountered some difficulties since inviting strangers to live in her home.
Her first two roommates didn't get along with each other due to differences in their obligations and habits. They both moved out in less than a month. Other applicants suffered from chronic diseases, not ideal for Zhang.
"I know it's pretty normal for us seniors to get ill, but I don't want my roommate to have any major diseases, otherwise it will be a burden and pressure for us both," Zhang said during an interview with China Central Television. She is still searching for "compatible friends" with whom she can enjoy her twilight years.
Zhang's experience is not an isolated case. In Pingyao Town, Zhejiang, a 74-year-old retiree surnamed Wang and her 78-year-old husband invited six senior couples into their three-story home in May 2017. They are still living in harmony, sharing meals and playing mahjong together.
The world is aging too. According to the 2017 Revision of the World Population Prospects published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, a declining fertility rate is leading not only to a slower pace of population growth, but also an older population.
The report also predicted that the number of persons aged 60 or above is expected to jump from 962 million in 2017 to 2.1 billion in 2050 and 3.1 billion in 2100.
The number of persons aged 80 and above is likely to triple by 2050, from 137 million in 2017 to 425 million in 2050. By 2100, this group is expected to increase to 909 million, nearly seven times its size in 2017.
Yet there are a growing number of options for senior citizens in the latter years of their life. Wang Xiuying, an 82-year-old retired worker who lives with her daughter and son-in-law, hires a domestic helper to manage the housework and provide daily nursing. This model is increasingly common in China.
"I don't like the idea of living in a home where there's no family. And I don't believe that people there can provide the same level of care and love as my own daughter," Wang told Beijing Review.
However, many people don't mind living in a nursing home with fellow seniors. Minister of Civil Affairs Huang Shuxian said on January 2 that China has more than 28,000 licensed nursing institutions for the elderly, with nearly 7 million beds as of September 2017. More than 12,500 nursing institutions for the elderly were private, up 7.8 percent year on year.
Some real estate enterprises have launched high-end nursing home programs which can provide quality services for people who have a lot of requirements, but at a correspondingly higher price.
And for those who are reluctant to pay for nursing homes, there are still choices available. By the end of last year, Beijing had built a senior resident community where 95 percent of the apartments, equipped with senior-friendly facilities and medical services, must be sold to families with members over the age of 60.
"It's better than a nursing home, because it's our own family home," said 81-year-old Xie Zhiheng, who moved into the community with his 77-year-old wife. They are satisfied with the apartment's furnishings: The sockets are waist height so that residents needn't bend down to use them and the doors have two peepholes, convenient for those in wheelchairs.
However, elderly care is still an arduous task for the country. Lu Jiehua, a professor at Peking University, stressed problems such as unbalanced regional development, as elderly services in rural areas still face great challenges.
"Currently there is a lack of professionals in the elderly care industry, and so the country must invest more in the relevant sectors," said Wu Cangping, a professor at the Institute of Population Research at Renmin University of China, in conversation with Guangming Daily.
He also said the government should create more policies in support of the development of the industry, and provide subsidies so that practitioners are better rewarded for their work. Colleges and universities should also train more professionals in how to care for the elderly.
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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