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China's population

The elderly group in China who found happiness by living together

Elderly residents of villa in Hangzhou held up as a model for the 150 million Chinese who are 65 or older

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 9:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 2:58pm

Thirteen elderly people from different families having been sharing a three-storey villa in Hangzhou for the past six months, leading some to suggest similar arrangements might be one way to care for China’s growing number of senior citizens.

The residents, mostly in their 60s and 70s, have been helping each other with the housework in their shared home in Hangzhou’s suburban Yuhang district since July, Hangzhou’s City Express newspaper reported.

“We are living happily … and have oriented ourselves to the current life,” one was quoted as saying.

China’s population has been ageing rapidly over the past decade. There were more than 231 million people older than 60 on the mainland by the end of last year – 16.7 per cent of the country’s population. Among them, 150 million – 10.8 per cent of China’s population – were at least 65 years old, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

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Six couples and one widow live in the Hangzhou villa, which is owned by one of the couples.

The owners placed an advertisement in City Express in May saying they had a villa with a fish pond, farmland, trees and livestock and they wanted some other elderly people to share their house because their children did not visit often and they felt lonely.

More than 20 couples applied and the couple that placed the advertisement landlord narrowed down the field, with one factor in favour of a candidate being an affinity for mahjong.

The residents signed agreements that included clauses on rent, duties and living costs and a code of conduct that called on them to respect each other’s habits and hobbies, help each other, make compromises and not disturb their neighbour’s rest or gossip about them.

The villa, in a rural area, has eight rooms and the couple that owns it charges 1,200 yuan (US$184) a month for most of the rooms, with ones on the sunnier southern side of the building costing 1,500 yuan. The money pays for a cook, cleaner and gardener, plus everyday items needed by the tenants.

Each family is put on roster to help with housework one day a week. They are supposed to prepare breakfast, boil water, buy raw food for lunch and supper, assist the cook, wash bowls and put the rubbish in dustbins. The residents all gather around a big table for each meal.

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One of the residents, a 73-year-old man surnamed Zhou, said he and his 62-year-old wife mainly decided to rent the room because she liked mahjong. They are both retired.

“She insisted on coming here, so I accompanied her,” he told City Express. “We have a daughter, but she is married and lives in Guangdong.”

The elderly residents described their model of living as “hugging each other to care for the elderly”.

A 67-year-old woman surnamed Yu said she had a heart attack some months ago and her neighbours scrambled to send her to hospital.

A 62-year-old woman surnamed Jin said she broke a leg when she slipped and fell. Her neighbours not only sent her to hospital but also delivered food to her room every day for the two months she spent recuperating.

Zheng Zhigang, a sociologist at the Beijing-based Eurasian System Science Research Association, said there were various elderly care models and old people could choose their own way of living based on factors such as their economic situation, educational background, living style and eating habits.

“The way chosen by these Hangzhou old people can be a reference for other people across China,” Zheng told the South China Morning Post. “Old people should not wait for the authorities or their children to take care of them. Instead, they should act on their own to solve their problems in a creative way.”

In Wuhan, more than 30 retired people had rented houses in a village about an hour’s drive from the urban area and lived an idyllic life, the Wuhan Evening News reported. However, they admitted the transport was not convenient and medical facilities were not easily accessible, with the nearest clinic 2.5km away.

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Zhang Lufa, an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s school of international and public affairs, said old people living in cities could not rely on their single child to take care of them, and so it was natural for many of them to form a community and depend on each other.

“But this arrangement can’t last long. It is not feasible among people older than 80 and with serious diseases,” he said. “The main function of this model is to kill old people’s loneliness.”

He said the biggest challenge for China’s elderly care sector was to provide proper service for those aged above 80 with dementia.

“It needs money to hire nurses in the long term,” Zhang said. “And there should be many more professional institutions and staff. But for the whole country, there is no action plan yet.”