For several thousand years, filial piety — including respect and care for the elderly — has been a fundamental virtue governing Chinese society.
The saying goes, “Filial piety comes before all virtues.”
But the esteemed position of the elderly and guarantees of their care have been eroded in a rapidly changing society as traditional family structures are weakened, people are mobile and separated, and many couples have only one child to care for them.
Caring for the elderly and establishing an effective caring system have become a major social problem.
Tomorrow is Chong Yang Jie (重阳节), the Double Ninth Festival, a day for showing respect to the elderly in China. This year it seems exceptionally special as the “Day for the Aged” has been written into law, a result of the amended “Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged,” which went into effect in July.
The amended law, commonly called the filial piety law, also suggests that family members should care for the spiritual needs of the elderly throughout the year.
Those who do not live together with aged parents should visit them often or send regards, according to the law.
Article 17 also prohibits family members from “overlooking or neglecting the elderly.”
No penalties are specified.
Obliging children to visit their parents is considered absurd and unenforceable by many people, an attempt to legislate personal morality.
“Filial piety is the most important of all virtues and visiting and caring for parents are the basic requirement for a Chinese. I don’t feel good that such basic ethical behavior is regulated by law,” says 29-year-old Jess Wang, a Shanghai local working for a foreign-invested company.
Lisa Jia, a 32-year-old new Shanghai resident from northeast China’s Liaoning Province, says that she will always visit her retired parents or have them live with her in Shanghai for one or two months every year. But she understands those who cannot visit. “It is not easy to spare the time in the fast-paced work environment of Shanghai,” Jia says.
“You cannot simply travel all the way home, have a glance at your parents and then travel back to Shanghai. Surely it’s more difficult after you get married and have two sides of the family,” she adds.
Socialist Gu Xiaoming considers the law a way to encourage young people to care for the elderly, since the law cannot measure filial piety or punish impiety.
“We cannot take the term ‘visit’ as simply a visit, but a chance for us to help the elderly solve their problems and meet their needs as they did when we were young,” says Gu. “These are such trifles compared with what Chinese traditional values required of children.”
The tradition of “raising children for one’s old age” (yang er fang lao, 养儿防老) called for children to support their parents when they could no longer work. But that has become almost impossible because of the rapidly aging population, weakening of the extended family, and family planning policies that encourage most people to have only one child.
The group of people who need care is growing much larger and faster compared with the group of caregivers, which is diminishing.
China had more than 194 million elderly (officially defined as at least 60 years old) at the end of 2012, accounting for 14.3 percent of the population, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
That number is expected to reach 243 million by 2020 and 300 million by 2025.
The pressure is even greater in Shanghai, as the Third Shanghai Senior Work Conference heard in 2012. Shanghai’s elderly now number around 3.48 million aged 60 or above. They account for 24.5 percent of the total population and will increase by an average of 200,000 annually through 2015. That’s double the growth of the senior population group in the five years 2006-2010.
After 2013, more than 80 percent of the “new” elderly population will be parents of an only child, which clearly demonstrates that the tradition of senior care by the younger generation is impossible.
Without enormous help and resources, a two single children cannot care for four in-laws, two on each side of the family.
Though the society has started to marshal its resources and tap new resources — such as setting more nursing homes and developing community care services and systems — most Shanghai elderly still prefer to the traditional “family care” pattern. That’s the finding of the Investigation Report on Shanghai Residents’ Intention on Caring for the Aged, released by the Shanghai Statistical Bureau in late September.
The survey sampled 2,248 residents aged from 60 to 79 who have lived in Shanghai for more than one year. The report said 67.3 percent of those interviewed are inclined to the “traditional family care” pattern, 21.2 percent are inclined to “home-based care with community support,” while only 11.1 percent are for “organization care” and less than 1 percent for other ways.
Staying at their familiar home and low cost are reasons for preferring family care and home-based care with community support.
The long waiting list for good public nursing homes also contributes to seniors reluctant to choose institutional care.
Only 2.9 public nursing beds were available for every 100 registered elders in Shanghai by 2012, although the local government increased the number of beds from 33,400 to 105,000 from 2002 to 2012, according to the report.
Various programs have been set up in recent years to help meet the needs of the elderly, including day-care centers, meals on wheels, and home visits by ayis (domestic helpers) and nurses’ aides. Young people also volunteer to help care for seniors, checking on them, chatting, doing chores and shopping.
A major problem is the lack of trained geriatric nurses and nurses’ aides.
Socialist Gu is strongly opposed to setting up “elder communities,” without younger people and youth.
“How would you feel to witness people aging and dying and realizing that you yourself are one of them?” asks Gu. “I am not against nursing homes, but they should at least be located where seniors can still get in touch with the young and energetic. Having children visiting their parents more frequently will also brighten their life.”