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Aging in China

A Tradition Under Stress

Who will care for the nation's elders?

Snapshot of modern Chinese family

Zhang Jianzhong says he and his wife don't want to depend on their son in their old age because "it would be a great burden" on him. — Photo by Shiho Fukada

Still, “in an era when both parents work, we understand it’s not so realistic to care for four parents in their old age and a child like it used to be,” acknowledges Zhu.

While hanging onto aspects of filial piety, many families are changing how they care for aging parents. China’s home care industry is booming. Generating $9.8 billion today, it’s expected to grow to $18.5 billion by 2010 and $71 billion by 2020. But while 2.3 million older Americans live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, most Chinese would face intense criticism if they sent their parents to a long-term care facility.

However, today many middle-aged Chinese parents are looking more to the government than to their children for support when they’re old. “If society can provide social security and medical care, we will live a good long life,” says Zhang Jianzhong, a local government bureaucrat in Dujiangyan, Sichuan.

But there is grave concern that millions won’t get the health care and financial  support they will need. Pension plans are spotty. Social security covers only a limited number of people. Fewer than half of older urban citizens have any savings; the situation for farmers, who earn an average $588 a year, is even more dire.

“A social safety net has to be established,” says Wei Li, a professor ofeconomics at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

Indeed, China has new initiatives, including social security coverage for employees of privately owned companies and an experimental health care insurance system that now covers nearly 40 million retirees. The government has also built more than 32,000 senior centers, which provide health care and day care for more than 30 million people.

“But the question is, is this enough?” says Wei.

Zhang, 43, is well aware of the value of government support. Since the earthquake destroyed their house in May, Zhang, his wife and their 12-year-old son have been living in a government-provided tent. While their attention is now focused on rebuilding their lives, the Zhangs are confident that they will be prepared for the future. Zhang’s wife receives insurance benefits from her job as a nurse, and the couple have been saving for their retirement.

“I want some security in my old age,” he says, “and I want to give my son the freedom to decide whether we should live with him.”

Wang’s parents have already given her that choice: Her father still runs his small textile factory, and her mother is a retired graphic designer. They live well and wouldn’t dream of asking their daughter for assistance. But even for a modern woman like Wang, filial piety tugs at her heart. If need be, Wang says, she would rearrange her life to provide and care for her parents. “It is my responsibility,” she says. “I don’t want to regret it if something should happen to them.”

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