Nation gets older, but services are lagging

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At a time when China's elderly population is rising - including a sharp increase in older people unable to care for themselves - the nation is short of proper care facilities and nursing staff.

As of last year, China had some 40,000 elderly caring facilities with 2.8 million beds. The proportion between nursing-home beds and the elderly population was only 1.6 percent, far less than the 5 to 7 percent global level.

The aging population is emerging as one of the most important challenges to China's continuing development, officials from the China National Committee on Aging told a seminar at the Shanghai World Expo yesterday.

Officials from national and local aging committees, nursing homes and experts gathered to discuss the problems and possible solutions.

Yan Qingchun, vice director of the China National Committee on Aging, said the traditional format of elderly people being cared for by family members at home must be changed because people are living longer, yet families are smaller due to the one-child family planning policy.

It's becoming common for young couples to be responsible for as many as four parents and even some grandparents.

In addition, nearly half of the elderly live by themselves, the committee discovered from a survey last year.

Yan said the government has come up with a solution, but it will take "time and a good system to realize it."

"The main and feasible method," he said, would be for "most elderly people to be living at their home while receiving service from professionals, while the communities offer day care service, and elderly homes take care of those with poor or without self-caring ability and the most senior ones."

The problem is acquiring urgency because the elderly's numbers are growing quickly.

As of 2009, China had 167 million elderly people 60 or older, 12.5 percent of the total population. That included 19 million Chinese aged 80 or older, and 28 million who had lost part or all of ability to care for themselves.

By 2040, China is projected to have 397 million people 60 or older: more than double the current number. By 2050, one-fifth of the entire population will be 65 or older.

"The highly senior and those with poor or no self-caring ability should be the major serving objects of nursing homes," Yan said. "But we are facing an extreme huge pressure in offering caring service to the elderly under the limited nursing homes and trained nursing staff."

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