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In aging China, 94-year-old woman sues own children for not taking care of her

By Kristen Gelineau

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 14 2013 12:47 p.m. MDT

All she wants is to go to a nursing home, she says. But the few nursing homes in China supply only 22 beds for every 1,000 seniors, and most are too expensive for the average family.

Zhang has no money. She says her children took it all.

She is weeping now, pressing a filthy rag to her eyes.

"I'm too old to go through this."

The village this family calls home lies within the district of Changshou, which means "long life." But living long has transformed from a dream achieved by few into a nightmare endured by many.

China is projected to have 636 million people over age 50 — nearly 49 percent of the population — by 2050, up from 25 percent of the population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So who will care for them?

Across the world, rapidly increasing life spans have left many adults scrambling to look after their parents, their children and themselves. And in China, one-child urban policies over three decades mean there are even fewer working youngsters to support their elders.

Meanwhile, social and economic changes have chipped away at traditional family values. A lack of jobs means rural youth must leave their parents to find work in distant cities. And even children who can afford nursing homes fear sending their parents away will mark them as "unfilial," says sociologist Jenny Zhan, who has studied the impact of China's changing demographics on family relations.

The result is an emotional and generational tug-of-war.

Kuang stands in the kitchen, frustration etched into every line of her face. She knows what Zhang has been saying about her. And it's all, she says, a lie.

Kuang has become the true matriarch of this clan. Ask to speak to her husband, and she'll insist he won't know what to say. She knows best, so just ask her. It's not an offer — it's an order.

But it is also Kuang who looks after her mother-in-law, because in China, as in many other places, women shoulder most of the responsibility of elder care.

Kuang lives upstairs: She says her frail mother-in-law lives on the grim ground floor because she can't climb the steep steps. Up here, the tiled floors shine, and the bathroom has a traditional squat toilet. While it's hardly a palace, at least it's not the garage.

Still, her mother-in-law is no victim, Kuang says. If anyone is suffering, it is everyone in the family who has thanklessly cared for Zhang decade after decade, even as they grow older and more desperate themselves.

"I'm doing all the laundry! I'm making the bed for her!" she says, exasperated.

When Zhang claims the lawsuit was her sons' idea, her daughter-in-law explodes.

"She doesn't know the whole story!" Kuang barks. "Let me tell you what really happened..."

China is going grey faster than it is growing rich, and state support for the elderly is not keeping pace.

Even in cities, where pensions are comparatively generous, elders say it's a game of dominoes; if one family member falls, they all do.

In rural areas, it's even worse. A new pension scheme for rural seniors does not cover everyone, and monthly payments are meager.

Health care is also inadequate, and a serious illness can bankrupt a family. Although a recent expansion of the medical system now covers most Chinese, reimbursement rates remain low and out-of-pocket costs high. Many rural families cannot afford the hospitals' huge up-front deposits.

Where the government falls short, the kids are left to solve the problems — except that they often can't, and sometimes won't.

Zhang's children have all come up with reasons why they cannot take care of her.

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