Survey shows problems of China's growing elderly population

Survey shows task facing Beijing as it struggles to cater for the world's fastest-rising elderly population, with a quarter below poverty line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 5:40am

An unprecedented study of China's ageing population has shown a third of elderly mainlanders report poor health and a quarter are struggling below the poverty line.

The research reveals the grave challenge facing Beijing as it tries to cope with the fastest-growing ageing population in the world.

It is struggling to put in place adequate health care and retirement support before the problem spins out of control.

The China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study covered 17,708 people aged 45 or above in 28 provinces.

One in four elderly (those aged 60 and over) were found to be living below the government's official poverty marker of 2,433 yuan (HK$3,053) a year.

More surveys will be conducted in the coming years and the data will give policymakers and academics a better understanding of the social, economic and political implications of the nation's ageing society.

In the first report released yesterday, experts found nearly 38 per cent of elderly reported difficulty in completing basic daily tasks on their own.

A total of 24 per cent need help with their daily lives and a third experience bodily pain. Physical exams showed 54 per cent had hypertension, with the condition undiagnosed in 40 per cent - which equates to 40 million people - before the survey.

Women were far more likely to experience psychological distress; more than 48 per cent of elderly women and 32 per cent of elderly men reported depressive symptoms, such as restless sleep or feelings of fear. Overall, 40 per cent of the elderly - the equivalent of 74 million nationwide - reported depressive symptoms.

There is already a severe shortage of elderly care in major cities.

The Beijing Evening News reported recently there were more than 10,000 applicants for 1,100 beds on offer in the capital's No1 Social Welfare Home.

Beijing has 450,000 elderly living apart from their families, but only around 215 public nursing homes and 186 private ones - roughly three beds for every 100.

John Strauss, professor of economics at the University of Southern California and a principal investigator for the study, said mainlanders were "definitely worse off" across all measures of health status compared with the US or Britain.

In the US only about 26 per cent of people aged 65-plus have difficulties completing daily tasks. If the China study had used the US definition for the elderly - starting at 65 - the contrast would have been even more stark.

Albert Park, another principal investigator and a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said: "There will be a big challenge to provide adequate physical care for those who need assistance. And the health care system needs to do a much better job of providing sufficient insurance, diagnosing chronic disease risk and encouraging healthier lifestyles."

Family support plays a significant role in the well-being of the elderly, the study shows.

However, private sources of support will decline with a fall in the younger population, meaning public support programmes will increasingly be needed.