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Aging population, changing attitudes drive China's senior care boom

Date:2015-12-3

Liu Yuping, a nurse in an elderly care facility in downtown Beijing, is preparing to spoon-feed two men in their 90s.

"Papa Zhou, let's have dinner first," the 40-year-old nurse said to one of the elderly men, who is completely paralysed and confined to bed.

After blending vegetables, meat and rice into a paste, Liu scoops the mixture into Zhou's mouth slowly and wipes it gently from time to time.

On the other side of the room, the other old man, surnamed Wang, sits impatiently in a wheelchair.

"Mom, mom," 93-year-old Wang mumbled. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease years ago, and calls the people he trusts "mom."

"Please wait, your dinner will be ready in just a minute," the nurse told Wang.

Chinese people have traditionally relied on their children to help them in old age, and institutions for the elderly have not been widely accepted.

However, things are changing. With a soaring senior population and most adults working full time, attitudes toward filial piety and old age have shifted, fueling a rapidly growing elderly care industry.

"Elderly people with disabilities or dementia can receive professional care 24 hours a day in the care center, and the burden on families can be lifted a bit," said Mr. Wang's wife.

The number of people age 60 or over in China reached 212 million at the end of 2014, accounting for 15.5 percent of the country's population, with the number of disabled elderly people approaching 40 million, statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission showed.

The United Nations has predicted that people over age 65 will account for 18 percent of China's population by 2030, double the number in 2011.

By 2050, China is expected to have nearly 500 million people over 60, exceeding the population of the United States, according to UN predictions.

The aging population has brought greater demand for elderly care services. According to a report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this month, Chinese people will spend over 10 trillion yuan (1.54 trillion U.S. dollars) from 2016 to 2020 on elderly care, increasing 17percent per year.

The senior center where Liu works was founded in May 2013, after investors saw great business potential in the aging population.

According to Kang Yanling, head of the elderly care institution, after an initial five-million-yuan investment, investors put in another seven million early in 2015, doubling the center's floor space and increasing beds to 212.

"We've made little profit, but I'm optimistic about the industry's future, as elderly care services will be trending everywhere," said Kang. She noted the number of elderly care institutions has grown from around 20 in 2012 to more than 40 in the district she lives in.

As of March 2015, a total of 31,833 elderly care institutions were registered in China, with as many as 5.84 million beds available, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA).

In order to meet the challenges of an aging society, the government has also issued policies to improve the elderly care system, including opening up the market and encouraging private and overseas investment, which were included in China's five-year development proposal.

Kang's elderly care center has taken advantage of the government's favorable policies. She said the government has granted monthly subsidies ranging from 300 to 500 yuan per bed.

"Government subsidies have relieved some of the burden from our shoulders," Kang said.

Despite all the potential and government support for the industry, there are still difficulties for owners of elderly care institutions to overcome, not least of which is a lack of nurses.

China has around 290,000 elderly care nurses, which is far from sufficient to care for the number of disabled seniors in the country, according to Zou Ming, vice minister of the MCA. Most of the nurses are over the age of 40 with low wages and education levels, making them more prone to quit, said Zou.

"Nurses are taking too many risks now due to a policy vacuum with regard to standards of service and responsibilities," said Sun Qiang, 22, who majored in elderly care before taking a job in a care center.

Moreover, the social status of senior care nurses in China is relatively low, and the field lacks prestige and respect. "This makes it even harder to attract young people to the job," Sun added.

The MCA has worked with the Ministry of Education to develop majors related to elderly care in vocational schools, as well as to encourage cooperation between schools and elderly care institutions.

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