Plight of 'only children' calls for more state support in providing care for the elderly

According to national demographic reports, senior citizens above 60 years of age in China numbered 230 million in 2016, representing 16.7 percent of the total population.

THIS year’s “two sessions,” or the meeting of the country’s top legislators and political advisers, has seen a surge in the number of proposals and draft bills related to senior care.

A lot of them try to draw people’s attention to the same social problem: how do only children care for their aging parents?

For instance, Yu Jinyao, a historian with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a political adviser, argued in his proposal that as parents of only children reach old age in large numbers, it’s high time the government paid attention to their plight.

These people, mostly in their 50s or 60s, once heeded the call of the family planning authority and are bearing the brunt of the defunct one-child policy.

The effects of the policy are being acutely felt as grown-up only children form their own families and struggle to spare time for their filial duty.

Statistics appear to support heightened concerns about the growing pressure on only children to care for their folks.

According to national demographic reports, senior citizens above 60 years of age in China numbered 230 million in 2016, representing 16.7 percent of the total population. In less than two years, this figure is forecast to grow to 255 million.

Many lawmakers and political advisers have thus urged the government to pass bills in line with the traditional Chinese emphasis on filial piety.

One of their most favored methods is to expand the scope of the extra paid leave policy that has been adopted in the southwestern Chongqing Municipality and seven provinces including Heilongjiang and Fujian.

Extra paid leave

According to this policy, only children are granted leave of 15 to 20 days to care for parents being treated in hospital, and employers should guarantee full pay during their absence.

It is being debated whether implementation of this policy on a national scale is a realistic possibility.

Indeed, senior care has emerged as a huge challenge to only children as well as to care-giving institutions.

Today’s only-child parents often feel torn between the duty to care for their aging folks and the obligation to look after their own offspring.

Many complain that they lack the energy or time to juggle both commitments. Some say they don’t dare to fall ill.

And since many live separately from their “empty-nesting” parents, sometimes thousands of kilometers away, their anguish is especially excruciating.

One gets a taste of the anguish from a picture that was a finalist at the 26th National Photography Exhibition last year. In this picture titled “Only Child” a man is seen sitting between two hospital beds, with his parents lying in them.

Although he has his back toward the photographer, the sense of helplessness is overwhelming.

For those of us growing up under the one-child policy, we cannot but feel a vicarious pain, and perhaps a hint of self-pity, for in a few years we will face the same situation depicted in this picture.

In March, the Beijing-based China Youth Daily conducted an online poll of 1,992 people aged 18 to 35, and found that 87.9 percent are concerned about senior care issues.

Among the respondents, 65.3 percent replied they are too busy to respond to aging parents’ needs; 59 percent said provision of such care is straining them financially.

Observers like the afore-mentioned Yu said local senior care practices that prove effective should be turned into a state policy, so that only children are freed from worrying about the consequences of leaving their jobs temporarily to practice filial piety.

It is predictable that most business owners will not take too kindly to Yu’s proposal, as multiple staff absences will increase their operational costs.

For this reason, lawmakers are right to point out that the authorities should consider economic incentives, such as tax breaks, to encourage businesses to grant paid leave.

Basically, I am skeptical of any measures aimed at instilling the concept of filial piety — something that calls for genuine love and commitment — thorough the force of the law.

Years ago there was this laughable news item of people hiring strangers to care for parents who live alone, as if filial duty can be traded in a marketplace.

But with the rapid graying of Chinese society, and with help yet to come for the generation of only children, we may have to reconcile ourselves with more schemes and practices that seek to remind us of the importance of “the first of the 100 Chinese virtues,” however weird they are.

Special Reports