The Elderly in China – Something to Admire

I enjoy having the opportunity to host foreign investors when they visit China for the first time. They see the country the way I used to see it, and I wish sometimes that I could get back to that feeling. For people stepping off the plane in Shanghai, China seems like a country that is capable of accomplishing anything, and a place where the market is ready for just about any new product.

So for the next few days we will be looking at the things China does well.

I remember when I lived in Longzhou I was struck by the quality of life enjoyed by China’s elderly population.

It is common to see in most Chinese cities, parks full of elderly people enjoying chess, dancing and some of the most leisurely backward-strolling I have ever witnessed. They seem to have maintained large social networks because many of them live their entire lives in a single village or city.

In the cities I have lived in, senior citizens are entitled to free public transportation, which usually covers most of the city (which compared to the US is amazing, even if it’s often hot and crowded). It also seems that they are always able to find a seat on the bus, since Chinese tradition demands that younger people, even into their 40’s or 50’s, give up their place for someone older.

Within the family the eldest person’s opinion carries the most weight. It is also becoming more common for the grandparents to move back in with their children, once the grandchildren are born. It is often the grandparents who take the child to school, cook for the family, and pass on family history. They are not a person to be questioned.

I would see them gathered under the shady trees on campus that branched out over the few cement tables. The men were playing Chinese chess, and drinking from their glass jars filled with tea so strong you’d expect it to keep them awake through nap time. The grandmothers would be nearby, fawning over their grandchildren and helping them to take their first steps in life.

I couldn’t help but compare that to the nursing homes so many of our senior citizens live in in the US, and think how much better their lives would be if they still had a defined role in their children’s families. My grandma in the US likes to joke that instead of calling them elderly, or seniors, they should be known as “honored citizens”, but in China that already seems to be the case.

Note: My grandma is an amazing person, and she reads this blog daily, which I think is pretty advanced for an octogenarian. My co-workers agree that this would be quite the feat even for someone in their 60’s in China. My grandfather is equally wonderful, and I know he is sitting beside her with a big grin on his face as she reads this to him.

9 responses to “The Elderly in China – Something to Admire”

  1. Anonymous says:

    And I, too, vote for your Grandma and Grandpa. But you might say I am prejudiced – “I’m one of them!”

  2. I am happy to read positive points of view. thanks.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Tom: Anonymous must have been your Dad! Thank you for the kind words for your Grandparents. GM & GP

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    My Chinese friend says that elderly people in China get the free transport when they are 70 years old – here in Scotland we get it at 60 and can travel all over Scotland on the very good bus service!! Also, in the West, the average age of people entering a nursing home is 85 years old. Most Chinese seniors do not live that long. Yes, they retire at 55 years old, and consider themselves old at that age. My friend in Beijing is newly pregnant – she plans for her elderly mother (aged 54) to care for the baby. So this lady will leave her home town in Hunan (where she is a well respected teacher of Mandarin) and move to Beijing to care for the grandchild, no doubt very happily. BUT she leaves behind her doctor husband, her friends, her neighbourhood, her rewarding career, for life in a poky apartment in Beijing. Yes, who dares question the Chinese elderly?, but hey, they charge plenty for their services in emotional currency!

    • gang zhou says:

      You are quite prejudiced and ill-informed, because you have never been to China. China is aging fast, which is due to the life expectancy there is 78 on average. Besides, you do not understand Chinese traditional culture at all, such as the three cardinal bonds in Confucianism. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see that three generations are living under one roof, the family ties are very close, which is just contrary to your culture.

  5. Anonymous says:

    In my opinion, any person who is “not a person to be questioned” is a dangerous person.

    Neither the elderly, nor the middle-aged, nor the young should be exempt from questions.

  6. canrun says:

    “My friend in Beijing is newly pregnant – she plans for her elderly mother (aged 54) to care for the baby. ”

    A fact I will never, ever be able to wrap my brain around, no matter how long I’ve lived here. My thoughts (for ALL cultures): don’t have a kid unless you can afford to raise it yourself. (I am clearly in the minority there…)

    Ps…my mom is SIXTY four and preparing to run the Atlanta marathon next month. She’d loathe being called “elderly.” Different strokes for different folks, I guess…

  7. John Book says:

    Before WWII, in Japan, younger people could/would not step on the shadow of someone who was older or more in authority. Teachers, older or not, were SO respected.

    Now-days, the elderly are shuffled off into a back bedroom at best, or a state-run nursing home where no one seems to care. However, if gramps or grandma has some bucks or has rooms that the kids can take over… then they are a bit better to have “around”. So the kids, especially single ones are jokingly called parasite-singles.

    The elderly just don’t have the status they used to in the “old days”.

    My above statements do paint with broad brush… My in-laws have been great with their parents and I’m sure other are too… but less or no respect of elders has become much, much more common.

    • Tom says:

      interesting, it seems that in many ways looking at Japan is somewhat like looking into a crystal ball for China’s future. This isn’t ofcourse 100% accurate, but a lot of the changes you’ve mentioned socially, seem to be slowly coming to China.

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