FunCulturalThe city of centenarians heralds the future in an...

The city of centenarians heralds the future in an aging China

Deftly, Gu Bin calligraphies the “good fortune” ideogram and signs the number 104, his age. The “Chinese city of longevity” pampers its elderly and anticipates the future in an aging China.

In Rugao (east) exceeding 100 years is no exception: of the 1.4 million inhabitants, the city has 525 centenarians and 78,000 people between 80 and 99 years old.

The dean is 109 years old.

Gu Bin was born in 1918 and is a vivacious great-grandfather. “I write poetry, I read books and newspapers, and I watch the news every day,” he explains.

China faces a demographic bomb, with a low birth rate and an aging population, as a result of decades of birth control policies.

In an attempt to stop the phenomenon, for a few years the country has authorized couples to have two children. But raising a child is expensive and the population is already used to having one. Currently 254 million Chinese are 60 years or older, or about 18% of the population, and most are retired.

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According to official estimates, they will represent a third of the inhabitants in 2050 and social expenditures (health, retirement, dependency …) dedicated to the elderly will represent a quarter of GDP.

“China is already reorganizing its retirement and pension system, with the aim of progressively increasing the retirement age,” says Yong Cai, a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert on one-child policy.

“He also works in the healthcare arena – he has to strike a fine balance between expanding access, providing quality care and controlling costs.”

“A treasure”

In this context, Rugao is like a laboratory for the future.

The elderly are ubiquitous in temples and parks. The city treats them with respect and has built a 50-meter statue representing Shouxing, the god of longevity in Chinese mythology.

“Our philosophy here is to respect the elderly,” said septuagenarian She Minggao, director of the Rugao Longevity Research Center. “For us, having an old man in a family is like owning a treasure.” A proud.

Gu Bin displays a gold medal that he obtained by winning a 100-meter event against other seniors.

A few years ago he fell and since then he has to stay at home, but he is aware of everything that happens in the world thanks to the internet, which he learned to use with more than 90 years.

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“Biden is too old to be president,” he reacts to reading a newspaper article on his computer about the 78-year-old White House tenant. “He’s younger than me, but not that smart,” Gu comments with a smile.

Work, family, free services

Rugao’s secret lies in its exceptional natural environment, according to its inhabitants.

It influences the high amount of selenium in the soil, according to a study by researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This chemical element reduces the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Some people attribute longevity to other factors. “I still work,” says Yu Fuxi, who, at 103, enjoys cooking for her grandchildren.

“I sweep every day and I like it when everything is clean and tidy. I go on a motorcycle to the market and buy what I want, ”adds the centenary in a room with a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At the opposite end of town, Qian Minghua helps out at his son’s screw production company and sorts nuts with his nimble fingers. “I am 101 years old and my health is good,” she says in the apartment she shares with her son, grandson and great-granddaughter. A coexistence that makes you “happy”.

In Rugao the authorities look after the elderly with pensions and cover part of the medical care. The city offers free services such as check-ups, haircuts or massages.

In China medical consultations are cheap but medicines and operations can be expensive and the poorest families, especially in rural areas, sometimes find it difficult to pay.

Changes in customs

Wang Yingmei and her husband pay 4,000 yuan (511 euros, $ 621) a month for a room in a nursing home in Rugao. It is the equivalent of the average of a month’s salary in the city and almost double the monthly income in rural areas.

“My son works in Beijing, so the house is empty,” says Wang Yingmei, 85. “It’s more welcoming here” because there are people, he explains.

But finding a nursing home in China is not easy.

“Public institutions are in high demand and the waiting lists are long,” says Kyle Freeman, consultant for the Dezan Shira & Associates cabinet. And the very expensive private centers do not have enough capacity.

Traditionally in this country elderly parents live with their son and daughter-in-law.

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But it is usually complicated. Couples (consisting of two only children) often end up caring for four elderly parents.

With economic development, which pushes many young people to study or work in other parts of China, this custom is gradually changing.

The authorities’ goal is that 90% of the elderly live at home, not in a senior center or in a medical establishment. But “this implies a return to the (Chinese cultural value of) filial piety that suffered a halt in the last 30 years, especially in large cities,” emphasizes Sofya Bakhta, an analyst at Daxue Consulting.

A market

In the next 15 years, elderly care could become China’s most important economic sector, according to Kyle Freeman.

This market is still embryonic and expensive. But the government encourages investment in a sector that it expects to reach 13 trillion yuan (1.7 trillion euros, 2 trillion dollars) by 2030.

Health, services, leisure and tourism; the increase in the number of retirees is synonymous with new opportunities for these sectors. The construction of public or private homes for the elderly is progressing.

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“The elderly economy” currently represents 622,000 million euros (756,000 million dollars), according to the Daxue Consulting firm in Shanghai.

“In 2050, the elderly will have a high level of education, will receive a better retirement pension, will be used to traveling abroad and will have a much better command of new technologies,” emphasizes Sofya Bakhta.

Meanwhile, Gu Bin feels satisfied living at home, surrounded by neighbors he knows and close to his daughter and son-in-law.

“Life is beautiful,” he concludes.

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