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Every senior citizen deserves affordable eldercare services

By Kang Bing | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-14 07:21
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Elderly women have Laba porridge at an eldercare center in Taizhou, Zhejiang province, on Jan 16, 2024. [WANG HUABIN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

Eldercare has become a serious challenge with the rapid aging of China's population. Statistics show that by the end of 2023, China had more than 296 million people aged 60 or above who made up 21.1 percent of the total population. The figure has been increasing at a relatively fast pace because people today have access to advanced healthcare services and nutritious food.

In fact, demographers expect China's elderly population to increase to 400 million in the next 10 years, peaking at about 520 million — more than the population of any other country except China and India — by the middle of this century.

The central authorities have left no stone unturned in taking proper care of senior citizens. The Government Work Report submitted by Premier Li Qiang to the annual session of the National People's Congress in March this year not only mentioned the phrase "eldercare" more than 10 times, implying the great importance the government attaches to the issue, but also pledged to increase the pension for retired people in both urban and rural areas, and expedite the building of a comprehensive, sustainable and fair social security system.

Moreover, in early January, the State Council published a document on the development of the "silver-haired economy" — the first use of the term in the central government document — in a bid to attract investment into the eldercare sector.

Taking care of over 296 to 520 million people aged 60 or above in the next two decades or so is probably China's biggest challenge. Yet to ensure the "fruits of development" are shared by all, the central government has been increasing the pension by 4-4.5 percent a year.

Since it is not feasible to send hundreds of millions of aged people to nursing homes, China has been promoting a stay-at-home care model, under which health workers including professional nurses, cleaners and cooks can organize into companies to provide eldercare services, with neighborhood committees seeing to it that they provide quality services at reasonable prices.

Besides, China has established a call system which provides eldercare services at home. Those in need can avail of such services by just pressing a button to get a service provider to clean the house, do the laundry, cook a meal or even trim the nails or, if need be, call for an ambulance or just sit and chat with the senior citizen.

Although these are paid services, the neighborhood committees see to it that the prices are affordable for the elderly people. As for the senior citizens, they seem to like the model because they can stay at home while getting the services which are not much different from what they can get at a nursing home.

Realizing that eldercare services may eventually develop into a big business employing millions of people, the related central ministries recently released a working standard for long-term care workers, which sets the conditions for people entering the profession, and the regulations for workers' training and classification of their levels.

While it's an obligation for the government to take care of the elderly, investors see it as an opportunity to make profits. As a matter of fact, the eldercare market in China was worth 10 trillion yuan ($1.38 trillion) in 2022 and could be worth 20 trillion yuan — almost the size of the United Kingdom's GDP — by the end of this decade.

Hundreds of high-end nursing homes have been built over the past two decades by investors. To make quick money, they may ask an applicant to pay 1-2 million yuan to get a membership before paying more than 10,000 yuan a month for the services they get. Most retirees cannot afford the high prices, leaving many beds in such nurseries vacant.

Other investors are developing robots to provide eldercare services — robots that are capable of doing not only household jobs but also chatting with the lonely souls if need be.

In such a situation, the government should coordinate different sectors and sources, so as to check investors' lust for making quick money. Making eldercare accessible and affordable to the entire elderly population should be our common goal.

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