I recently returned from a NAELA (National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys) delegation to China, where my colleagues and I witnessed a national crisis that serves as a stark lesson in unintended consequences.
We all know about the “one child” law that has been in place in China since 1979. In an effort to combat overpopulation, a couple could have only one child or two for rural couples if the first child was a girl or if the couple was a member of an ethic minority. Leaving aside the intrusive manner in which the law was enforced, the consequences of the one child policy for parents is now coming home to roost, and in November 2013, China has dropped that policy for many citizens.
Combine the simple math of fewer adults with the mass exodus to factory cities and urban centers, and you have a huge population of aging and elderly Chinese parents who have no one to care for them. China is home to the world’s largest aging population, and the same country previously known for venerating its elders and worshiping ancestors is now a country where children are being taken to court to enforce visiting their elderly parents.
The government is trying to reverse the trend. A law was passed requiring adult offspring to visit and provide emotional support to their parents. Several parents have taken their children to court, garnering a lot of media attention. The Government is even placing ads in newspapers urging children not to forget their parents.
We met with a government official who is the equivalent of the Assistant Director of the Social Security Administration. He expressed great concern for the well-being of aging population. However, given the government is involved with so many facets of Chinese life, I did not get the sense this was a top priority.
It is sad to learn that the suicide rate among the elderly is rising because there is no one to care for them, and they do not have the resources to care for themselves. The retirement age is 60 and government pensions are about $100 a month –while the cost of the “old age home” we visited is over $160 a month. These amounts do not sound like much to us, but they are very expensive by Chinese standards. While it is customary for children to care for their parents, it is also customary for parents to help their children. This puts many pensioners in the position of trying to help their parents and children; their version of our “sandwich generation.”
As part of our visit, we were met with the Resolution Committee of a farming village of 750 people about 20 miles outside Xi’an. We engaged in a discussion of the common problems we share and how our respective cultures deal with them. They explained how they handle disputes when an aged parent needs care. Often, the Committee has to resort to shaming the child whose parent needs care; even if they have left the village.
During our trip, there were numerous stories about seniors and their problems. I saw a half page ad in a local paper with the face of an elderly woman, with a caption beseeching adult children not to forget their aging parents.
Given the enormous wealth created by the manufacturing colossus that China has become, one might think that some kind of financial assistance would be provided for a civilization that once represented the golden standard for honoring parents and elders. Sadly, this is not the case. It is no small irony that the country of Chairman Mao is now a global economic powerhouse and the suffering of the impoverished stands in stark contrast to the vast fortunes being made through the labor of workers.
One can argue we do not do a perfect job of caring for our seniors, but there are many programs, social service agencies, and an entire body of law that works to protect their rights and ensure a quality and dignity to their lives. NAELA went to China because they know they have a problem. We are hoping we will be able to help.