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Road To Retirement

So many elderly people are moving to other cities to care for their grandchildren that the phenomenon is changing the structure of the Chinese family

By Yang Zhijie Updated Mar.11

On October 19, 2016, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) released its annual report on the country’s population, stating that in 2016, 247 million people in China were domestic migrants, including 18 million “elderly,” those over the age of 60.  

These pensioners move to other cities as parents busy cooking in the kitchen of their working children or as grandparents waiting outside kindergartens. Many of them, however, find it hard to adapt to the new environment, thanks to the differences in lifestyle, the generation gap and difficulties in transferring their health insurance.  

When Dong Yazhen arrived in Beijing from her hometown of Tieling in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province in October 2006, she never imagined that she would stay in the capital for 10 years.  

Dong’s only son had settled in Beijing and asked his mother to take care of his home and most importantly to help when he had a child. Tieling is well known in China for its agricultural produce, but in step with rapid urbanization, a growing number of young people have flowed away to cities for better job prospects.

Dong’s family fits an emerging pattern of demographic change in China. Duan Chengrong, deputy dean at the School of Sociology and Population Studies, Renmin University of China, outlined the four phases of China’s family structure change. 

First, from the 1980s to the mid 1990s, young people, both married and unmarried, went to cities to work. The second phase, from the early 90s, saw young people starting to getting married in cities or take their spouses from rural areas to the cities. Since the late 90s, nuclear families – couples with young children – began to float to cities. The fourth phase is the change to extended families. Duan said that China’s migration is moving from the second phase to the third but the fourth has surfaced.  

Dong’s situation could be categorized as the fourth phase. When she was asked by her son to move to Beijing, she consented without hesitation. In her opinion, it was her duty to take care of her grandchildren.  

Along with the growing number of elderly people who have to move like Dong, many sociologists also began to shift their research in about 2011 to cover this group. According to Tang Jun, researcher with the Center of Social Policy Research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in comparison to other kinds of migration, this group moved not for work, but for their offspring.

Official statistics show that in 2015, people over the age of 60 accounted for 7.2 percent of the migrant population in China and that there are three main reasons they move: to take care of their children, to retire to a more livable place or, if still working, because they land a better job elsewhere. Over half of the migrants over 60 moved to other cities to look after their children or grandchildren.  

Dong, 67, never imagined that she would have to put so much effort into adapting to life in Beijing. Upon arrival, her first challenge was to find her way back home when she went out. In 2006, Dong lived with her son and daughter-in-law in a neighborhood outside the Fifth Ring Road in east Beijing, which was isolated at the time and inconvenient for shopping and errands.  

With her son and daughter-in-law at work, she found she was spending more and more time alone. There were other older people in the neighborhood who had come from across the country but she did not like striking up conversations with them. She tried to talk more with her son and daughter-in-law but their conversations rarely lasted long, which depressed Dong.  

As Liu Yana, associate professor of public administration at Capital Normal University, sees it, older migrants generally suffer from a lack of mental support when they leave their hometowns, and have to build a new social network. Because of the generation gap, different lifestyles and lack of common interests, it is not easy for them to live with their adult children and adapt to the new environment, and thus end up being plagued by a lack of belonging.  

Shortly after Dong arrived in Beijing, her husband passed away. In order to try to lift her mood, she joined the neighborhood square dance every evening. In the second year, she had a turning point. She got to know a local Beijinger aged about 50 who asked Dong whether she would like to help clean the nearby street from 8am to 5pm for a salary of 700 yuan (US$100) per month.  

After getting the approval from her son and daughter-in-law, Dong agreed. “I didn’t take the job for money. I was so lonely and there was nothing else I could do,” she told NewsChina. “It was better to be out every day and have more contact with people.”  

The work only lasted a year until Dong’s grandson was born. Now familiar with the surroundings, she would take her grandson downstairs for some sunshine and gradually got to know other older people who also took care of their grandchildren.  

Over the past ten years, Dong has been trying to adapt to her life in Beijing. Her daughter-in-law is quite outspoken and sometimes makes Dong angry, albeit unintentionally. Most of the time, Dong would go out alone to shop at supermarkets, chat with other older people and even weep alone on a bench. She never told others how she really felt, not even her son, because she did not want to saddle him with worry or bring any displeasure to the couple.  

There were also differences of opinions on the education of her grandson. Dong never thought that she had to wash her hands and change her clothes after coming in from outside before holding her grandson. Nor did she fully understand what was needed for a balanced and nutritious diet for him. Dong also could not fathom why the couple sent her grandson to several extra classes when he was only in the first grade of elementary school.  

Dong’s sense of loss is a reflection of the changing Chinese family structure within the context of urbanization and mass migration. According to Bi Hongyin, researcher at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences, taking care of grandchildren has contributed to the prevalence of extended families across the country. The arrival of the elderly in cities and moving into their children’s houses, she said, has deprived them of their traditional, dominant roles in their families.  

In the opinion of Du Peng, a professor who studies older migrants at Renmin University, these elderly people have to make huge sacrifices when they join their children’s families.  

Wu Mengli, 60, moved to Beijing from the city of Shihezi in Xinjiang in the far west of China several years ago to take care of her twin granddaughters. Every Monday evening, she has to take the two three-year-olds to a nearby English class and wait there for an hour. She told our reporter that during her three-year stay in Beijing, taking her granddaughters to school was her main job, in addition to the housekeeping. She rarely went out alone and when she was free, she would watch TV at home. Her husband stayed in Xinjiang to take care of the children of their other son.  

Policy Changes 
After getting accustomed to her life in Beijing, Dong joined the volunteer service group in her neighborhood and took part in activities organized by the residents’ committee. Zhou Taihang, Party chief of the Wanxiang Xintian residential committee where Dong lives, told NewsChina that there are a number of elderly people living in the neighborhood and many of them came to Beijing from other places to live with their sons or daughters.  

According to Lu Heng, associate professor at Jilin University School of Philosophy and Sociology, any existing social connections are broken when older people move to a new city and any new social connections are yet to be established, making it hard to get involved with local residents and participate in social activities. Elderly people have to adapt to a new environment, and a mutual acceptance between them and the city is needed, he added.  

Over the years, Zhou has found that younger generations have little time to spend with parents who have come to join their families and most elderly people are quite sensitive and concerned about their health. Zhou’s residents’ committee regularly organizes psychological counseling for the older people and invites medical staff to give them free health checkups. In addition, recreational and sports activities are staged regularly, targeting the elderly group with most of the participants over 50.  

“Our residential committee has done one of the best jobs in the entire Chaoyang District [a large area of Beijing] in providing a service to elderly people,” he told NewsChina. “Our staff are young and willing to help. What’s more, there are urgent demands for elderly care services in our neighborhood.”  

Over the years, Dong would return to her hometown in Tieling once a year to see her friends and relatives. Nowadays her main concern is being able to see a doctor in Beijing using the medical insurance she paid into in her hometown.  

“Many elderly people who move to cities have paid into the new rural cooperative medical system in their hometowns but don’t know how to use it. Some policies are already in place but there is a lack of awareness,” Duan Chengrong told our reporter. “A lot of work is needed to improve the insurance policies and for the public to learn how to use them.”  

On November 18, 2016, the NHFPC announced that several provinces across the country had signed an agreement for the transference of medical care insurance and specified the obligations of these provinces in procedures including the transfer of treatment and payment accounts.  

Duan said that the migrant population previously made up the bulk of the labor force and that China has been improving its social policies for employment, training, labor contracts and the reform of the household registration system. Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of children of migrant workers have been moving to urban areas along with their parents and issues for these children, mainly around their education, have been put on the agenda.  

“It is a relatively new issue for older people to move to another city. The necessary institutional arrangements and policy design are yet to keep apace,” Duan said. “The entire society, the government and academia know very few people in this group and are sometimes utterly ignorant of it. It is urgent that policymakers carry out surveys and research before making policies, in order to better meet the group’s demands.”