Global Observer

China set for retirement home boom as population ages

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BEIJING - China's elderly care market is set for rapid growth, as one third of China's population will be past retirement age by 2050.

Yang Junjie says she enjoys the freedom of living in a retirement home, where she indulges in her hobby of making boxes from plastic beads until the early hours.

BEIJING -- Yang Junjie lived through most of China’s tumultuous twentieth century. Now, at 82 years of age, she has a new challenge: getting to grips with a Sony Playstation.

At the Yanda retirement center, close to Beijing, Yang receives some of the the most luxurious elderly care available in China. The center boasts medical care from doctors flown in from South Korea and Japan, and even pipes water from its own underground hot springs.

Sitting on a titanic sofa, Yang said she enjoys life in her “European style,” apartment (Yanda also offers Japanese and Chinese-style interior decoration), where she stays up until the early hours of the morning, watching Korean soap operas. In the afternoons, she zips around Yanda’s grounds on one of the two electric scooters parked outside her apartment door. “I don’t want to live at home with my son,” she said. “I prefer the freedom of living alone.”

Afternoons at Yanda are spent learning rather than napping. A “University of the Aged,” provides dance and painting classes for the retirees. “A lot of our residents are former professional artists, so we encourage them to teach classes as well as study,” Zhou Sujuan, head nurse at Yanda, said.

Yanda's elderly residents taking part in weekly pool-classes.

Yanda also offers a cavernous underground pool hall, dimly lit rooms for late-night Mahjong tournaments, and a sauna. The spiritual needs of Yanda's residents are catered for by dedicated Catholic and Protestant Chapels, as well as a miniature mosque. On a Friday afternoon, a small group of adventurous retirees take turns popping virtual balloons using the Yanda's Playstation 3, which was a gift from the local government.

China’s elderly care market is itself set to balloon over the next few decades, as the country’s population ages rapidly. Partly as a result of China’s so-called “one child” policy, one third of China’s population will be over retirement age by 2050, according to government estimates. But China only has enough retirement facilities to care for 1.6 percent of its elderly, compared with 10 percent in developed countries like the US, according to a World Bank report. “The industry is due for an explosive period of growth,” Zhou said.

One factor slowing the growth China’s retirement industry are traditional beliefs that children should care for their parents themselves, making Chinese people reluctant to leave their relatives in retirement homes. Yanda hopes to solve this problem by recreating a family atmosphere away from home. Unlike most Chinese hospitals, where staff are referred to with formal titles such as “Nurse Wang” or “Doctor Liu,” Yanda’s nurses are addressed directly by their names, Zhou said.

One Yanda resident gets to grips with a Playstation controller.

China won’t find it easy to pay an expansion in elderly care. Many of Yanda’s clients are retired government and military officials, who Zhou refers to as a “Red Aristocracy.” They receive bonus pension payments which easily cover most of Yanda’s fees. But the majority of China’s elderly population lives in impoverished rural areas, where they subsist on a state pension which is far from the amount needed to pay for a retirement home.

That’s why China’s government is supports the industry directly: Yanda gets tax breaks from the local government, as well as a small subsidy for each resident. But Zhou offers a word of caution for anyone hoping to profit from China’s growing elderly population. The overwhelming poverty of China’s retirement-aged population means that most of China’s retirement centers will have to be operated on a non-profit basis, she said. “Chinese old people are mostly poor, and our industry has to adjust to that fact,” she said.

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Tom Hancock

Correspondent (Beijing)

Correspondent, Beijing Tom Hancock has written for Geographical Magazine, The Asia Society, China Dialogue and AsianCorrespondent.com. He previously worked at CNN's Beijing bureau. He holds a degree from the University of Cambridge and studied at The Renmin University of China. He is based in Beijing, China. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure