As China faces mounting pressure over its ageing population, health experts have questioned whether the central government is prepared to address the needs of the elderly.
The concerns were raised at a forum yesterday in Beijing to celebrate World Health Day on the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation.
The topic for this year's event is ageing and health, specifically the theme that 'good health adds life to years'. The WHO wants to focus on how lifelong good health can help men and women lead full and productive lives and inspire their families and communities.
According to the WHO, in the next five years - and for the first time - adults in the world aged 65 and above will outnumber children under five. The phenomenon of ageing societies started in wealthy nations in the West and Japan, but the greatest change is now taking place in low-to-middle-income countries where, by the middle of the century, 80 per cent of older people will live.
In China, the 2010 national census showed there were 119 million people - about 8.9 per cent of the population - aged 65 or over.
Chen Chuanshu, standing vice-president of the China National Committee on Ageing (CNCA), said addressing the health needs of older people was a priority. 'We must optimise support systems for the elderly, develop the health-care industry and foster an ageing-friendly social environment,' Chen said.
Professor Zhang Youqin, a specialist in ageing research at Xiamen University, told the South China Morning Post that senior citizens had three essential needs: economic security, assistance in their health and daily lives, and spiritual comfort. While more of the mainland's elderly had pensions, that alone was not enough to address their health and daily care needs.
Zhang said the mainland had not prepared itself for an ageing society and its infrastructure, experience and abilities to tackle such a huge number of older people were inadequate.
'For years, scholars have appealed to the authorities to address the ageing issue and in particular to establish community-based support networks, but officials have ignored our advice, thinking that as long as the aged received their pensions, they wouldn't have other problems.'
Dr Hu Yu, director of gerontology at Shanghai's Zhongshan Hospital, said most of those in their 60s were still fit and active and typically did not develop chronic conditions until their 70s.
The average life expectancy in Shanghai is 82.13 years, the highest in China. But the city also faces the worst ageing predicament on the mainland, with a quarter of its 14 million permanent residents aged 60 or more, according to municipality's local statistics bureau.
Hu said the four most common health problems for the elderly were cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease, lung disease, osteoporosis and tumours. And an increasing number were suffering cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease.
Hu said nursing care, rather than doctors' treatment, was essential to prolonging the life of many older people. However, many families can't hire people to look after their elderly members around the clock.
Beijing's strategy for dealing with its ageing population is that 95 per cent will live with family, while the rest live in public or private senior citizens' centres. The central government has vowed to add more than 3.4 million beds in these centres over the next four years and has encouraged local hospitals to monitor the health of people over 65.
But Zhang said this care model was not feasible as long as service networks in the community were inadequate. She also criticised the government for lacking ideas on how to put these concepts into action.
'These older people's children, in their 40s or 50s, are busy with their jobs and have their own families. They don't have the time or energy to take care of their parents with chronic illnesses,' Hu said. 'It's desperately urgent that many more institutions be built and more staff trained to care for the elderly.'
The vice-minister for health, Yin Li, told the forum that health services and insurance for the elderly had grown over the past five years and health care for the aged was a priority in health-sector reform.
years was the estimated life expectancy at birth of Hong Kong residents in 2011, according to the CIA Factbook