Mindset change needed in fast-ageing China: Experts

BEIJING (The Straits Times/ANN) - Forum speakers highlight need to strengthen education efforts, suggest learning from countries like Singapore

Defusing China's demographic time bomb will require not just a strong push by the government but a change in mindsets across Chinese society as well as the adoption of best practices from abroad, say experts on retirement and active ageing.

Recent policy documents focusing on China's fast-ageing population showed that the government is serious about addressing the issue, the vice-president of China's National Committee on Ageing, Mr Wu Yushao, said at a forum at Renmin University of China (RUC) last Tuesday.

The forum, co-organised by the Singapore Management University, came days after the elite Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party released its first blueprint detailing the country's plan to proactively tackle the issue.

The five-point plan calls for a basic institutional framework to be in place by 2022 that provides a more sustainable social security system, among other things.

The plan followed another policy paper on building a comprehensive elder health services system unveiled earlier last month. That was Beijing's first guidance document on the issue, compiling work by eight national departments.

Population experts have long said that China - already home to the largest aged population in the world - will get old before it gets rich, and that relatively piecemeal efforts to address the impending population shift have been inadequate.

National statistics showed that China will have 487 million people aged 60 and above by 2050. This would be more than one-third of its projected total population.

This is partly due to a doubling of life expectancy over the last 70 years and stubbornly low birth rates despite the scrapping of the one-child policy in 2015.

China's economic transition in recent years from a high-speed to a more normal growth rate will also have a knock-on effect on pensions and the affordability of healthcare, said Professor Du Peng of RUC's Institute of Gerontology.

Experts said the most pressing need, apart from putting in place an ecosystem of eldercare options and ensuring the elderly's financial well-being, is changing mindsets and improving health literacy.

"Education of the elderly is the biggest issue in terms of policy challenges," said Mr Ding Shaolei, chief executive of Gold Nurse, a home-nurse-on-demand platform.

"While the elderly in Japan look forward to seeing the world, in China, the expectations are very low: to have enough to eat, be warm, and not be incontinent.

"In rural areas, some even hope they die quickly," he said.

Mr Wang Qian, an official overseeing elderly health at the National Health Commission, noted that a recent survey showed only 15 per cent of Chinese had basic health knowledge, and that the number was even lower for the elderly.

"Going forward, China's health education needs to be strengthened not just for the elderly and their caretakers, but the young and healthy, such as in diet, exercise, mental wellness and disease prevention (to inculcate) holistic attitudes towards having a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Singapore's experience dealing with its own rapidly ageing society holds many direct lessons for China, such as in unlocking home equity for retirement use and tapping grassroots organisations in the support of seniors, said RUC's Prof Du.

United Nations data showed that between now and 2050, Singapore will see the largest percentage point increase in its share of elderly among all countries, behind only South Korea.

"China should also learn from Japan - which is the most aged society - and South Korea, which is fastest-ageing, in areas such as long-term care insurance and the provision of multi-function daycare centres within their communities," Prof Du said.

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