Rugao (China) (AFP)
Gu Bin leans over a desk as he carefully adds traits to the Chinese character for “fortune,” before signing off in style with his age – 104.
But the lively great-grandfather is five years younger than the oldest community member in Rugao, an eastern town that’s home to more than 500 centenarians and celebrates its elders with pride, statues and grants.
Calligraphy is one of the many hobbies practiced by Gu, who was already 90 years old when he learned to use the Internet.
“I write poetry, read books and newspapers, and watch the news every day,” says Gu, born in 1918, in the tumultuous early years of the Chinese Republican era.
Decades of a one-child policy have created a demographic challenge for China, with a low birth rate and the world’s largest supporting elderly population, while the pressure of city life tears apart traditions of filial responsibility for aging parents.
By 2050, the government predicts that retirees will constitute a third of China’s population and caring for them will cost a quarter of annual GDP.
This week’s census data showed that China’s population over 60 had reached over 264 million – a 5% increase over the past decade – making Rugao a testing ground for the future of the country. country.
It is nicknamed China’s “city of longevity” for its impressive number of super seniors, with 78,000 people aged 80 to 99 among its 1.4 million people – and another 525 out of 100.
Temples and parks are filled with old people praying with long incense sticks, dancing or practicing the slow strokes of tai chi.
Older residents gather to chat in the cobblestone streets by the river or sit in public squares to sing songs in a town that celebrates its retirees with a 50-meter-tall statue depicting Shouxing, the god of longevity, life expectancy.
“Our philosophy here is to respect the elderly,” She Minggao, director of the Rugao Longevity Research Center, who is himself nearly 70 years old, told AFP.
“We think having a senior in a family is like having a treasure. “
This pride is reflected on the residents. Gu shows a heavy medal for the city’s centenarians who walk a hundred meters, as well as a certificate dated 1951 for having fought in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Wrapped in padded pants, a coat and a hat, the former accountant is mostly staying at home after falling a few years ago.
But he keeps his mind sharp and stays connected with the outside world through the internet.
“Biden is just too old to be president,” Gu said ironically, pointing to news about the 78-year-old American leader.
“He’s not as old as I am, but he’s not as smart. “
– Work ethic –
Rugao – about 200 kilometers from Shanghai – is surrounded by fields of green and yellow crops and decorated with majestic canals. Locals believe that the natural environment has a role to play in their longevity.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences speculated in a report that high levels of the mineral selenium in the city’s soil could be a factor extending the life expectancy of its citizens.
But after living more than a century through China’s tumultuous history, others have a simpler explanation.
“I’m still working,” says his great-grandfather Yu Fuxi, 103, who travels around town on his scooter.
“I sweep the floor every day and like to keep everything clean and tidy. I go to the market on my scooter and buy whatever I want, ”he adds, in a room with a tightly rolled up bedspread and a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping on the wall.
Yu regularly prepares meals for his grandchildren, rushing into the kitchen in white overalls.
Across town, Qian Zuhua – two years his junior – is also motivated to help out in his son’s screw production factory, matching metal nuts and bolts with his ever-nimble fingers.
“I am 101 years old and my health is good,” he told AFP from an apartment shared with his son, grandson and great-granddaughter.
“I’m happy when I think about it. “
– Empty nesters –
The elderly in China are traditionally cared for at home by younger parents.
But the one-child policy has created a rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce, putting pressure on working children to care for two sets of parents.
Urbanization, long working hours and high real estate prices – as well as changing mindsets among many younger and cosmopolitan Chinese – make combining tradition and modernity a challenge.
Authorities in Rugao have introduced subsidized or free door-to-door services – health checks, haircuts and massages – for the elderly.
Residents also benefit from a pension supplement which increases with age and a subsidy for the care of the elderly.
But in other parts of China, care for the elderly is less expensive.
“Government-run institutions are in high demand and typically have long waiting lists,” said Kyle Freeman, partner at consultant Dezan Shira and Associates.
In contrast, he says, expensive private facilities are mostly below capacity.
With many families now made up of one child, two adult parents and four elderly grandparents, Chinese children are in a hurry as they try to care for loved ones.
“My son works in Beijing, so we are the empty nesters,” said Wang Yingmei, 85, from the tidy room she shares with her husband at a rugao elderly nursing home.
“It’s actually more comfortable than our house because there is no one else in the house but us. “
– Price of aging –
Residents pay around 4,000 yuan ($ 600) per month for their room in the center.
That’s roughly the average monthly income of a city residing in China – but more than double the income of a rural worker.
Freeman says elderly care could overtake real estate as China’s largest industry over the next fifteen years, with health officials predicting the total cost of elderly care could drop by about 7% of GDP to more than a quarter by 2050.
Chinese policy aims for 90% of the country’s elderly to be cared for at home, but to achieve this, the authorities will need to instigate a change in mentality.
“The implication is a return to filial piety in China that has taken a hiatus, particularly in the cities, over the past 30 years,” said Sofya Bakhta, Chinese market analyst at Daxue Consulting.
Gu Bin is quite happy at home in his leafy apartment where he knows his neighbors, lives with his daughter and son-in-law, and can indulge in his multitude of newly found hobbies.
“In the past, China was poor, we didn’t have anything. Now I have a place to live, food to eat, and my clothes are warm.
” Life is Beautiful. “
© 2021 AFP