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China's ageing dilemma

Hospices and care homes are a relatively new concept, but it's where many elderly Chinese are spending their final days.
Last modified: 12 Nov 2012 17:52
[Al Jazeera/Laura Kyle]

Sheltered from a busy highway behind a large grey wall, is one of Beijing's biggest hospices.

It houses 300 patients – many of them here to die.

Up to eight beds are packed into rooms off long, dimly-lit corridors. Carers in red tracksuits attend where they can, to the needs of their, mostly immobile, patients.

Head Nurse Yuan Jie has never had any formal training, but she's looked after thousands of people.

Twenty years ago she switched from management. Everything she knows has been through experience.

'We have heart'


"We can't compare to the facilities you see in Europe," she says. "But we have heart. We care about these people. For old people, the best medication is having heart."


Chinese society is rapidly aging. By 2050, it's predicted a third of the population will be aged 60-plus. Some 450 million people.

And there'll be fewer working-age people to support them – financially and physically.

The one-child policy of the 1980s has given rise to a phenomenon known as 4-2-1.

The only child having to look after not only his parents, but two sets of grandparents.

Filial piety is an ancient Chinese tradition and today many young adults still say it would be shameful not to have their parents at home with them.

But in a country that's developing at breakneck speed, sons and daughters in their twenties and thirties are focused on work – getting their share of China's growing wealth.

Hospices and care homes are a relatively new concept, but it's where increasing numbers of elderly are spending their final days.

China's welfare system is already struggling to cope.

The government says it needs ten million qualified carers. There are 100,000.

Nurse Yuan isn't holding her breath for government training. She's coached thousands of volunteers at the hospice and believes the most important qualities are kindness and patience.

She constantly worries about her patients – whether they're happy and how to settle them.

Her phone is full of photos, short videos and notes to remind her what each patient needs and to pass on the information to other carers.

"They're like children", she says. "So you have to treat them like that."

'Different tricks for different patients'

Our interview keeps getting interrupted by 74-year-old Duan Bao Qing, a thin, shuffling man with wide eyes.

His wife brought him to the hospice when he became too difficult to cope with alone. Guilt made her take him back, but again she couldn't manage and he's been here for the past three months.

Duan just wants to stand close to Nurse Yuan and have her hold his hand.

She gently tries to move him out of our camera shot, but he remains silently insistent.

Eventually she tells him to fetch something from her room. He shuffles off obediently.

"We use all different tricks for different patients," she explains. "With him we get him to pick something up, with others we use food or money."

Lang Chung Sheng needs to be given 200 Yuan a month – about $30 – to keep him from getting agitated.

He's just had his 89th birthday. His son left him here 10 months ago when he moved to America.

Lang leans forward on the edge of his bed – eager for our company but struggling to hear what we say.

When the nurse goes out the room, he tells us he doesn't really like the place, that he'd rather be outside making new friends.

"But," he says, "What can I do?"

Lang misses his son and is waiting for a US visa to go and join him.

The nurse shakes her head - it's never going to happen.

Follow Laura Kyle on Twitter: @lkynews