China's "orphan grandparents" can sue absent children for not visiting

They call themselves "orphan grandparents" -- elderly people whose grown children have left for jobs in other cities, putting stresses on China's traditional three generation households. Here, a group of elderly women meet for a game of mahjong at the Xintu Center for Health Promotions in Shanghai. Photo: Mike Hricik/Penn State University/MCT

SHANGHAI — Yan Meiyue, 90, said her 72-year-old daughter rarely visited, even for the annual Spring Festival, when families traditionally reunite. So Yan, a widow since her husband’s death nearly a decade ago, spends every weekday at a modest community center near her home, where she plays mahjong and eats meals prepared by a volunteer staff.

“The volunteers keep us company,” she said with a smile, her voice trailing off. Yan is one of a rapidly growing number of self-described “orphan grandparents” who feel personally or financially abandoned. It's a troubling trend for China where elders have traditionally been among the most respected members of society.

For centuries, Chinese households have included many generations, and Chinese elders could count on their children caring for them as they grew frail. But today this ancient social contract is giving way. The booming Chinese economy is prying apart families with job opportunities that lure adult children to distant cities or other countries.

Charities, nursing homes and local governments increasingly are picking up the slack, said Robert Stowe England, an expert on population aging. England authored the 2005 book “Aging China.”

Generational Links Weakened

China’s government has taken notice of the trend. On July 1, a new law allowed parents to take their children to court for not visiting them “often.” The law was passed after state media reported mistreatment of the elderly, including the story of a grandmother in her 90s who was forced to live in a pigpen for two years.

“The tradition in China is that the son is responsible for care of elderly parents,” England said. “The sons are now moving to the city, and it weakens that link.”

Ma Qiaoying, 82, one of Yan’s neighbors, said that both of her sons live outside of China and only visit her once a year. One son works as an executive for Germany’s highway system, while the other works in Canada as a mechanical engineer.

Ma said that student volunteers come to her community to sing and dance twice a week, but she depends on her other elderly friends for support. “We’re like a big family,” Ma said. “We can talk to each other and share our problems.”

Retired businessman Jiang Gong Liang moved more than 500 miles from China’s Shandong province to be closer to his daughter in Shanghai. He frequents Lu Xun Park, a city park that is popular with retirees, and passes the time by playing the huqin (an instrument similar to a violin) for passers-by.

Jiang said he was happier now that he could see his daughter daily, but he admitted that he misses his home in the north where his family lived for many years.

One-Child Policy Hurts

For many decades China's government ruthlessly enforced the one-child policy, meant to control the country's population growth. This made it illegal for couples living in cities to have multiple children. The law was first applied in 1979 and it has been relaxed only recently. But the damage has been done for China’s citizens who are past retirement age.

About 1.34 billion people live in China, including about 180 million people over the age of 60. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 people who are 65 and older will represent more than 25 percent of China’s population. Robert England calculates that this would be more than 333 million people. This figure would far outnumber the elderly of the United States, Canada, Japan and all of Europe combined.

Respect for elders is a central belief of Confucianism, the system of values that has been the foundation of traditional Chinese society. But it began to fall out of favor when communists seized power in 1949.

For instance, the high-rise apartment buildings that clutter Shanghai are starkly different from the traditional siheyuan-style housing.

In a siheyuan — translated as quadrangle — three generations would live in buildings that surrounded a common courtyard. Elders lived in the northern building; the oldest son and his family lived in the eastern building. They stood as symbols of an extended family’s wealth and power.

Cost Of Caring For Retirees

The new parental-visitation law seems to suggest the government is looking for ways to save on the cost of caring for retirees by recalling China's Confucian roots, said Chen Honglin, a professor of social work at Fudan University. Until then, in the absence of children to keep them company, China’s elderly find other ways to occupy themselves.

Every morning, Wang Pei Lan, a retiree who lives in downtown Shanghai, comes with her husband to Lu Xun Park. Her three children work at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, but she said they weren’t able to visit often enough.

“We have nothing to do at home,” Wang said, while busily knitting under a large tree. At the Xintu Center for Community Health Promotion in Shanghai — a large NGO that focuses on care for elderly and sick people and those with disabilities — many of the volunteers are retirement-age people looking to help others, project manager Zhang Yan said. NGO is short for non-governmental organization.

The top floors of the Xintu Center shine with modernity, but its bottom floor, smelling like a toilet, is a reminder of the challenges ahead for China’s elderly.

This floor provides services to about 600 people with dementia, in addition to thousands of others. Many gather around televisions; others walk about aimlessly.

Struggling With Loneliness

Some of the elderly struggle with loneliness and, in a few cases, depression, Zhang said. The oldest without children nearby often hurt the most, she said.

So the center offers resources that include a psychological help line, weekly group meetings and routine visits from a hospital.

Two-thirds of the center’s retiree volunteers reported that they felt depressed, she said, and referring them to the services they need can be a challenge.

“Chinese people like to help each other, but sometimes they need the help,” Zhang said.

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