Men grow old, pearls grow yellow, there is no cure for it.
For a change of pace, I thought I'd take a look at how old people are doing in countries around the world. More old people live in China than any other country in the world, so I thought that would be a good place to start. Probably, if we have any ideas about old age in China, we may tend to idealize the respect that families show for older people. To some extent, this is a true representation of Chinese people's attitudes towards the elderly. Beneath the surface, however, things are changing. China's famous one child policy, means that there are fewer children to care for aging parents. As a result, more Chinese people are moving into "retirement homes," aka nursing homes. Meanwhile, less well-to-do families continue to care for their aging family members at home - if they are able to. A BBC report provides a brief, but interesting, overview on old age in China.
As younger people leave the villages and countryside for China's growing cities, parents are often left behind. Lucky parents, accompany their children when they move or go for extended visits to help with childcare. There are many Chinese grandparents in my neighborhood in Vancouver and I often encounter them pushing strollers or taking grandchildren to the nearby park. I've learned to say hello and thank you in Mandarin. These grandparents, most of whom speak no English, are invariably friendly and smile at my elementary Mandarin.
Back in China, things aren't always cheerful for grandparents who are caring for grandchildren. Serious problems exist in the countryside and villages where millions of grandparents are caring for grandchildren that have become known as left behind children. These left behind children are sometimes raised entirely by their grandparents, with infrequent visits from parents who are working in the city. Sometimes this works out well and sometimes it leads to lonely children who feel abandoned by parents they barely know.
Other issues facing Chinese society include the "ticking time bomb" of a rapidly aging population.
Things are not all gloom and doom, however. More retirement homes are being built, particularly in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and the tradition of caring for one's elderly parents remains strong. In one regional center, a community worker came up with the idea of The Age Bank. The Age Bank is a system in which retired people - who you might call the young elderly - care for much older people: helping them with errands, basic chores, and personal care. The hours they log are kept track of in a book and then, so the idea goes, when the original volunteers become older themselves, they can "cash in" their Age Bank hours and get younger elderly people to help them. It's a simple concept that should, if all goes well, help ease China's aging crisis somewhat. And people in other countries could apply similar models in their own countries.
I didn't know what I'd find when I began researching this post. I had no idea, for example, that China was facing a demographic crisis or that there were thousands of villages around China populated mostly by the very young and the very old. Meanwhile, much of what I found online shows elderly people in China quietly going about their lives: caring for grandchildren, using traditional practices to maintain their health, and enjoying their old age, if not in luxury, in happiness. Indeed, in China, as in other places, a certain amount of poverty can be the friend of old age. Poverty forces people to remain more active, eat fewer rich foods, and, perhaps, continue to work. In my years spent in the Canadian North, I observed similar patterns. I met many technically poor elders, who lived to great old age while continuing to work and care for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In the end, I can't say that having to work until the end of life is more painful than the forced inactivity and overmedication that I witnessed in the rehab center my mother was in middle-class America.
What do you think?