Silver service: China's elderly seek out upmarket nursing homes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

Instead of following the Chinese tradition of living with their children – sometimes in cramped rooms – more and more elderly are choosing to pay high fees to live in nursing homes where they can receive medical attention.

Wang Lingdi, an 89-year-old Shanghai widow, spends about 15,000 yuan (HK$19,000) a month, four times her monthly pension, to live in a high-end elderly care centre, as the facilities are called on the mainland.

Three months ago, when she left hospital after surgery for a bone fracture, Wang decided to move out of her flat and let her maid go before moving into the Cascade Healthcare centre in Pudong district.

“I’m now at such an old age that I think it’s OK for me to spend a large sum of money,” she said.

She pays the fees herself and doesn’t want to be a burden on her daughter, her only child. “My daughter is 64 and still works hoping to earn more money so that her son, who’s 40, can marry decently,” Wang said.

Wang said that what she valued most at Cascade was her single-bed room and rehabilitation service, both of which were hard to find in cheaper centres. No hospital in Shanghai provides long-term inpatient rehabilitation services.

She said she would probably stay for several more months and move out once she recovers.  “It is expensive after all,” Wang said.

US-invested Cascade is one of a growing number of upmarket nursing homes to have opened in the past few years in Shanghai, China’s largest and most rapidly ageing city.

Cascade runs two nursing homes in Shanghai – one in Xuhui district and the other in Pudong, with occupancy rates of roughly two-thirds and one-third respectively. About a third of its 110-room Beijing branch is occupied.

Bee Lan Tan, president and group CEO of Columbia China, which owns Cascade, said she was optimistic about the high-end elderly care market due to a “huge demographic trend in China and the growing needs of families for help to cope with managing their elderly parents”.

“Our target residents are those who believe in paying more for the medical attention they need,” she said.

China became a “silver-haired society” in 1999, when people over 60 accounted for more than 10 per cent of the population. According to official estimates, that age group will number more than 230 million by the end of this year.

In a survey of 750 mainland internet users aged between 55 and 84, conducted by Shanghai’s Mintel Information Consulting Company, three-quarters of respondents said it was worth paying more for better-quality products and services.

In addition to the expensive care centres, where most residents stay for less than a year, others are paying high prices for permanent places at retirement communities. These usually include flats featuring elderly-friendly equipment and fixtures, as well as health clubs, health centres and canteens.

Most real estate developments targeting seniors do not offer properties for sale. Instead, residents typically pay for membership, then rent the properties rather than buy them, experts say.

At Shanghai’s Cherish Yearn project, which accommodates 1,200 elderly residents, sales of rental contracts are bullish for a centre that will open at the end of the year, according to a sales manager who did not want to be named.

“Prospective residents buy a membership from 450,000 yuan to 1.28 million yuan, and the rent will depend on the size of the home, and whether the rental rights can be inherited by their children,” she said. “Residents also pay 100,000 yuan a year for the various services offered to the community.”

Outside Shanghai, however, very few properties aimed at seniors were successful, with occupancy rates at many as low as 10 per cent, said Yang Wei from Shenzhen-based Huamei Property Consulting Firm.

“These homes are not popular because they are located in suburbs; Chinese elderly people want to live in crowded and prosperous regions. What’s more, most projects don’t have trusted medical centres,” she said.

Yang said property developers only tapped this niche market in 2010 and still lack the expertise and experience to develop products and services for old people.

“The demand for such communities is strong yet developers haven’t found good ways to meet it,” she said.

“I have heard many people in their 50s and 60s say they feel they are becoming a burden to their children. They said it’s impossible for them to expect their children to take care of them when they grow older and sick.”

Tan said most residents of nursing homes in China needed auxiliary medical services, but as China became more affluent, the situation will be more like the West where many healthy people settle in retirement villages because they like to live with their peers. “It’s a lifestyle choice,” Tan said.