Friday, 19 July 2013

Getting Old Ain't No Picnic

It used to be that there was a difference between the treatment of the elderly in the oriental (and to a lesser extent Asian), cultures and the West. The idea was that in those societies, the elderly were looked after and respected within the family unit, while in the West, the elderly weren't respected, and would end up in old peoples homes.

During the 1980's and 1990's this seemed to hold true .... the West’s families structures appeared to implode, with divorce rates getting ever higher, thus increasing the pressure on the care for the elderly within a 'family' structure.

In the East though, the system looked stable, but in fact undermining these trends, in most oriental countries there has been a dramatic rise in the mortality rates since the 1960's - In China for example life expectancy was just 43 in 1960, but rose to 73 by 2010 and may be around 75 by 2030. In fact in China, the process of population ageing is so fast, that what that took up to a century in the West, will happen in the next 30 years in China.

China also became officially an 'old' country (The UN considers a country to be ageing when 7% of its population is aged 65 or over) while its GDP per capita was less than $1,000 pa. The norm for 'ageing' countries is after their GDP per capita exceeded $10,000 (£6,215) or for median wealth countries, when their income reached $5,000 pa - this means that China couldn't put in place the sort of age support provisions that wealthier countries provide.

Its Not All Fun Growing Old In China
This has combined with two events which have altered perceptions of the manner in which the elderly are treated in these different worlds - Japan has been in a recession that has caused much monetary hardship amongst once well off families, and in that same period China has expanded its economy several fold - with millions leaving their home towns and villages to seek work in the factories.

With the impact of of these events, stories of the collapse of the family support mechanisms for many of the elderly in both Japan and China have become increasingly common. With tales of an elderly grandmother who was beaten and forced out of her home in Jiangsu province, after she asked her daughter-in-law for a bowl of rice porridge, shocking the Chinese. Internet forums were then discussing another case a few days later, when in the same province, a family made their 100-year-old matriarch sleep in the same room as a pig.

These, and many other similar stories prompted the Chinese government to pass the 'Elderly Rights Law', which came into affect on the 1st of July 2013.

This law makes it a criminal offence not to visit your elderly parents regularly, care for their "spiritual needs", and to "never neglect or snub elderly people". How all of this will enforced and if it even can be enforced has caused much comment and discussion on the blogosphere, Internet chat-rooms and  Weibo (China's version of Twitter). One factor in the discussion is that in fact, to qualify for a place in a care home you have to have no relatives, so people are either forced to care for the elderly inside the family structure or abandon them. So just 2% of the elderly are cared for in nursing homes .... something the new law makes no effort to address.

Oddly, in a reinforcing legal case, that was surely more than coincidental, within a few days a Chinese court ordered a woman to visit her mother once every two months ....

It may be just a law that points out a social issue, but if it has any real impact, with an estimated 356 million people who will be 60 years or older by 2030, that’s an awful lot of family visits to make.

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