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July 3, 2014

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Elderly spurn house-for-pension schemes

XIA Wuyi, 70, is on his neighborhood’s “key assist list.” The single, childless man in Shanghai has a meager pension and Alzheimer’s disease, so is almost certain to face difficulties over care in future.

But when community officials approached him with a “house-for-pension” scheme that allows elders to sign over their houses for extra retirement cash, they met with absolute rejection.

“The house is my most precious asset and legacy, and after I die, I must give it to someone I know and trust,” Xia said.

His heir-to-be is a woman who has been taking care of him like a daughter. Xia promised to leave her the property if she continued to look after him in his remaining years.

Xia is not alone in rejecting the house-for-pension scheme. In his block in Putuo District, several elderly people without children have also decided to leave their houses to the community workers or police officers who have looked after them.

China has been pushing the reverse mortgage-style house-for-pension program to diversify its care solutions for a rapidly aging population. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Wuhan started a pilot to allow insurers access to this field on July 1.

Though voluntary, the scheme has invited criticism that the government is trying to shift the burden to individuals. It has also left a bad taste in a society where houses play a central role in family affairs.

Many Chinese regard the house as the basis of family, and are under pressure to buy one before getting married. When they die, the house becomes a precious legacy, and trading it away risks driving a wedge in parent-child relations.

“The house is generally believed to be the dearest gift to offspring; and many elders prefer to spend the rest of their lives in their own home,” said Wen Jun, a sociologist at Shanghai’s East China Normal University.

Even childless seniors may not favor such choices. Some, like Xia, would rather use the house to secure a caregiver, while others see disgrace in trading it away at all.

“The house is very important for Chinese, like the root of a family. Signing over my house will invite gossip and suspicion from others,” said Sun Huifen, 57, in Shanghai.

Sun, who lost her only daughter years ago to cancer, says the government should offer easier access to care services and show greater care to elderly who have lost their only children.

Instead of applying for the program, she and her husband’s plan is to have the house sold after their death to establish an education fund named after their daughter.

Analysts say the house-for-pension scheme is only a niche product, mainly an option for childless urban seniors.

“It’s a question of who should shoulder the responsibility. The public has long seen the government as the major provider of social security, but now the government hopes to bring in more market and social forces, which may be hard to accept for some,” Wen said.

By the end of 2013, the number of people aged above 60 in China stood at 202 million, or nearly 15 percent of the total population.

The tradition of relying on children for care in old age is now challenged by the one-child policy. As children struggle to look after their parents, there are not enough nursing homes and personnel to fill the gap.


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