The story appears on

Page B1 - B2

September 30, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

'Empty nesters' at home alone

IN Chinese tradition, old people should be accorded great respect and adult children are obligated to care for them. But as the day to honor seniors approaches, Tan Weiyun finds lonely elders in empty nests.

Zhang Zequan marked October 5 on his calendar two months ago and is happily counting the days. "My daughter will come back home that day and she promised to bring two bottles of good rice wine," says the 63-year-old who lives alone in Shanghai's Qibao Town, Minhang District.

His daughter, 38-year-old Zhang Chenxin, lives and works in another town with her family. She visits her father around once a month and on holidays.

"She has a family to look after," says Zhang, "But she calls at least once a week to check that everything is fine with me."

October 5 this year is the Double Ninth Festival, a day to honor elderly people in a society where filial piety has long been a tradition, though sweeping social dislocations have weakened family structures.

The festival is observed on the ninth day of the ninth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it falls next Wednesday in the middle of the weeklong National Day holiday.

It is a time for family reunion and togetherness. Children, if they can, take their parents out for a hearty dinner and maybe a countryside excursion. It's a tradition to eat Double Ninth Cake, a sweet dessert stuffed with red bean paste, that symbolizes longevity.

However, for many elderly people in Shanghai, this may be one of the few occasions when they can spend a whole day with their children and grandchildren.

Zhang, the Qibao native, has been making Double Ninth Cake for 40 years; when he was young he made it for his parents and grandparents, but now he makes it for himself.

"It's my annual ritual," he says.

Shanghai is going gray. By 2030, the city will have 5 to 6 million senior citizens aged over 60, almost 30 percent of the total population.

The Civil Affairs Bureau predicts that the number of people over 60 will increase by 200,000 every year until 2020. By 2030, Shanghai will have become the "oldest" city in China with one elderly person among every three people.

As these figures and their implications loom ever larger, a new group - the "empty-nest" seniors (kong chao lao ren) - is increasing dramatically and getting a lot of attention. An empty nest is a family in which the children have left home to find jobs, often quite far away, leaving parents at home alone, thus the "empty nesters."

Now that China's first generation born under the country's family planning policy (generally one child per urban couple) is starting their own families, more nests are empty.

In Shanghai, almost 40 percent of the elderly over 60 years old are living alone or as couple without company of their children, according to city statistics. The Commission for the Elderly reported late last year that the city has more than 940,000 empty-nest seniors. Among them, 275,000 are older than 80, while 193,000 are living alone.

A big question is how the city will care for its seniors, especially empty nesters, both physically and emotionally. A weekly phone call or visit is definitely not enough.

"All day your mother and I talk about nothing but the fun stories of your childhood. Everything is still in place like it was 14 years ago when you left. We keep your photos on the bed-stand, including pictures during our trip to Xuanwu Lake (in Nanjing) when you were little."

This letter, written by 58-year-old Wang Shaoming, received a huge number of clicks on the Internet during this Mid-Autumn Festival. His son, who has been studying and working in the United States for years, was too busy to return for Spring Festival, a traditional time of family reunions.

Many empty-nest elders are worried, anxious, distressed, lonely and depressed. Compared with physical pains, lack of emotional comfort can be more hurtful.

In March, a 70-year-old man living in Minhang District was found dead in his apartment - he had been dead for a week. His neighbors noticed the smell and called the Residents' Committee to check on him.

Last year an 81-year-old woman living alone in Yangpu District tried to kill herself by jumping from her second-story balcony. She was sent to the hospital and recovered, though she wasn't grateful.

Asked why she wanted to take her own life, the old woman wept and said she felt abandoned by the world. Her husband died many years ago and her two sons were working in far-off cities. They had no time to look after her.

With the departure of children, the only window to the outside world for many people has been closed. They live in isolation.

"Some pessimistic old people feel disgusted with life and cut off from society," says psychologist Wang Chen from the Shanghai Qing Zhu Counseling Center in Xuhui District.

A report from a second-tier city last year reveals that up to 60 percent of the elderly don't know how to surf the Internet and see what's going on with the world.

"Many of them ask themselves whether they are fit for this world, how other people see them and whether they have become a laughing-stock," says Wang.

Yang Lei, who started a home-delivery daily-care service for the elderly in Pudong's Weifang Community, says isolated empty nesters are much fussier and more irritable than other seniors and they distrust almost everyone.

"When we phone them and ask if we can help, they start yelling and shouting after we just say 'hello'," she says.

The service is for seniors living alone (whether they have children or not), providing meals, laundry and personal care, as well as assistance with washing and grooming, dressing, eating and getting around. Workers are trained to handle medical emergencies.

Twenty-four-hour, in-home care is available.

The monthly cost of daily visits is around 2,500 yuan (US$391), often paid by children or paid from a pension.

Yang helps one 75-year-old woman living with her paralyzed husband.

"Before us, she changed more than 20 ayis within one month," Yang says. She suspected one ayi of buying expired milk and another of stealing.

"Some old people living alone for a long time are hard to communicate with. It takes a lot of patience," says Yang.

Wang Yingzi, one of the home-care workers, once helped a 78-year-old man living alone in Pudong's Jinqiao Community. His son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter live in the United States and only return once a year for the Chinese New Year. During the rest of the year, they talk only on the telephone.

His son bought him a big house in Jinqiao and wires money into his bank account every month.

"But money is not what the old man wants. He only wants a companion, someone who can listen to him, someone he can talk with," says Wang.

The man suffered a heart attack earlier this year and was bedridden. His son only called once, not realizing the severity of the situation. "He didn't want his son's family to worry about him," she says. "But I still blame the son for leaving his father alone in China. It's irresponsible."

In many cases, Wang's most important service is companionship.

"Children who don't visit their parents much usually make the excuse that they are too busy," says psychologist Liao Lijuan at the Shanghai Professional Certification Center. "And most children think they do nothing wrong if they give parents enough money."

Wang Ruiyue says her work in a Shanghai publishing house occupies almost all her time. "It's not that I don't want to visit them, it's just that I have no time," the 28-year-old says ruefully.

Her parents live in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, about an hour's drive from Shanghai. Wang goes back to Suzhou once every month or two.

"I'm trying very hard to stay in touch with them," she says, adding that she has taught her parents how to chat with her online through instant messaging and video.

"Chatting with them is also good relaxation for me after a tiring day," she says.

Psychologist Wang says making one telephone call to their parents a day "wouldn't be that difficult or time-consuming for children. But it's a great comfort to the elderly."

"Children can ask their parents for advice on the phone, such as how to cook something or how to handle a problem. This gives parents a sense of worth," she adds.

Without a family anchor, some old people lose touch with reality and behave in bizarre ways, but others make an effort to go out and make new friends.

Early this month newspapers in Shanghai reported on their front pages that large crowds of single people over 50 years old were creating a "nuisance" by gathering at IKEA every Tuesday and Thursday for socializing, blind dates and free coffee.

They are often loud and quarrelsome and sometimes fights break out. They drink the free store coffee but almost never shop or buy meals. A number of regular customers complained about the shopping experience.

"We have nowhere to hang around in this city; we just want a place that belongs to old people," said one distressed elderly woman in a TV interview.

Now the number of oldsters have dropped significantly from all-time highs of around 400 people seeking blind dates. IKEA has set up a designated zone every Tuesday and Thursday for the seniors when it serves free coffee.

"We are still going to offer free coffee; this is our corporate culture, which we will never change," says Zhu Junlei, an IKEA employee. "And we can't stop them from sitting and dating here because we have no right to interfere in their personal liberty."

She adds that the government should do more to create places where seniors can get together.

The good news is that, the city's biggest senior service website, says it has found a bar, Star Dak, in Hongqiao area, whose owner is willing to open it for seniors during the day, at no cost. Activities are expected to begin in early October.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend