As the winter sun rises, the streets in the Beijing suburbs around Fragrant Mountain begin to bustle with commuter traffic. But in a local nursing home for the elderly, the atmosphere remains quiet and peaceful.
Li Fengqing's 83-year-old wife sits quietly on a bench in the Aimujia Nursing Home, holding her walking stick in her frail hand. Briefly animated, she recalls her wartime experiences working in the shipbuilding and munitions industries in the southern city of Guangzhou, but these days she mostly sits quietly with her memories.
Li and his wife exemplify China's rapidly aging population. In 2009, the number of over-60s in China reached 167 million, accounting for 12.5 percent of the country's population, and one fifth of the world's elderly. China is now the only country with more than 100 million old people. And until 2035 at the earliest, most elderly couples will have to rely on a single child to provide for their old age. The rapid increase in the elderly population poses serious problems for China's creaking social insurance system.
Old people face a dilemma. There are not enough places in government-owned nursing homes to meet the growing demand, and private nursing homes are simply too expensive for most people.
Private nursing homes beyond reach
Aimujia Nursing Home is a large-scale private home set up two years ago. It resembles a holiday villa more than a nursing home. A standard room has two single beds, a desk with a telephone, an emergency call system, a flat screen television, air conditioning, and a small porch.
The room costs 5,000 yuan (US $ 754) per month, excluding meals. But for this, the elderly also receive care from two doctors and a nurse who attend to their medical needs and perform regular checkups of their blood pressure and so on.
Mr. Li says he is very satisfied with the environment and the level of care he and his wife receive. "But the price is very high," he added.
Mr. Li was born in northern Hebei Province but headed south to Guangzhou before 1949, where he taught for decades in a primary school. His wife is a former senior engineer in the Ministry of Industry. When they retired, they returned to Beijing because they were both born in the north and wanted to spend their old age in familiar surroundings.