You might know that I am very interested in making cities more livable, vibrant, and fun places for youth and for older adults. If you make great places for youth and older adults, you’re going to make great places for everyone. That is the idea behind Canada’s 8-80 Cities non-profit and the conclusion reached by my PSU Workshop team in our Toward an Age-Friendly Portland report (click the image of the report to download).
What is an age-friendly city? An age-friendly city is defined by the World Health Organization as, “[A place that] encourages active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age. In practical terms, an age-friendly city adapts its structures and services to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities.” This post will analyze Beijing’s age friendliness and provide some general information about population aging in China. What is the quality of life for older adults in Beijing and China? Is Beijing age friendly? Let’s explore these questions.
Population aging in China, an overview
Like most countries in the world, China’s population is rapidly aging. As the population rapidly urbanizes and continues to “reform and open up” societal shifts take place that may affect the care and quality of life for older adults in China. In 2010, China completed the world’s biggest census. More than 400 million homes were visited and about 1.34 billion people were counted. The results of rapid urbanization were tallied: more than half of the Chinese population live in cities. The census also revealed some of the outcomes of the one-child policy. A generation with a gender imbalance with 40 million additional males and a population that is rapidly aging.
Population aging is when the median age of the country rises due to a number of factors including longer life expectancies, lower birth rates, and past population booms. In China, more than 13% of the population is over the age of 60, a figure that is likely to grow in coming years. These figures mirror the United States’ demographic shift toward an older population. The US Census Bureau forecasts that one-fifth of US population will be over the age of 65 by 2050. In the US that means that housing, social services, transportation, and so much more may need to be retooled. The financing mechanisms for these services may need to be rethought.
In China there is a concern that the shifting population structure will burden the economy and that new societal patterns will emerge where the younger generation no longer provides care for the previous generation. Some have called this a crisis, the Brookings Institute has forecasted that demographic shifts in China are a “gathering crisis.” While others, such as CEPR, believe that there is no crisis other than for corporations that care little about human development and are more concerned with maintaining a pool of cheap labor. Time will tell if these population shifts create a crisis, but I believe that a more educated, healthier, and financially secure China will be heralded in, not a crisis.
In order to move toward this bright future major societal shifts are taking place. As mentioned above, culturally, Chinese family dynamics are established so three generations live in one home. Modern shifts have seen young people leaving their homes in order to participate in the new economy. Often they send money to support their parents at home and sometimes their children will stay with their grandparents. There is enough concern about dwindling remittences that a draft legal amendment was written to legal mandate remittences and require visitations. While this may be alarmist, the loose consensus in my office is that the culture is slowly shifting and that there may be less support for seniors provided by their families in the coming years.
One dramatic change that must be addressed is the dwindling numbers of farm workers as young people quickly move to the city. Today, rural farm workers are most often older adults and the young urban population shows little interest in returning to agriculture. This Beijing Review article offers a good review of the problems with this shift and some of the efforts being made to improve agriculture through technological advancement (some mechanized some crop science…). http://www.bjreview.com/Cover_Stories_Series_2012/2012-04/27/content_449510.htm
While I do not have information on all of the petals to this flower, I can assess Beijing’s age friendliness in a number of categories.
Overall, I would say that Beijing offers many age-friendly features and would be an ideal place to make huge gains for older adults. Age friendliness is not meant to be a comparative assessment, rather an initiative to assess current conditions and to move toward improvements. That said, even with the snarl and seemingly inhumane driving techniques employed here, Beijing seems to better include older adults than Portland. Perhaps this is because of greater density, culture, lack of auto-oriented lifestyles, or a combination of these and more.
Where Beijing must dramatically improve is provision of safe pedestrian crossings, building accessibility, quality or pavements and curbs, driving habits around pedestrians, and environmental concerns such as noise and air pollution. Serious changes to the growth of personal motor vehicles ownership, driving habits, and parking (especially blocking pedestrianways) is vital. Improved housing assistance will be necessary as rents continue to climb.
Read on for a more in-depth analysis.
Transportation: If you have been following recent posts, you would have noted some of our observations about being a pedestrian in China. In sum: not so good. Given this assessment, it would make sense that those harrowing streets would be pretty terrible places for older adults. This is not entirely the case. While the pedestrian transportation system is lacking for older adults you still see many older people out walking, riding their bikes, cruising the auxiliary lanes in three-wheeled electric scooters, and taking transit. Rarely do you see older adults driving. Riding the bus one day I saw a young man who was sitting immediately get up to offer his seat to an older woman. Another day the bus driver quickly helped an older man onto the bus and waived his offer to pay.
Outdoor spaces: Beijing has some great park spaces and they are well used by older adults. Most of my pictures are of the creeper variety, but last weekend I saw large groups of older folks meeting to practice tai chi, another group playing mahjong, and another group singing songs. There are many small outdoor spaces close to housing developments, unfortunately, many of these are within the confines of gated communities so their use is limited.
Adult playgrounds are found throughout the city and are often in use by the young and old. I am a little shy and have not taken any great pictures of older folks working out. The creeper shots below are of the adult playground along my walk home from the office. Here’s a video of people using these playgrounds. Pardon the videographers “Behind the Wall” title…
Housing: Housing is very expensive in Beijing, and this may require many older adults to relie on younger generations to pay for housing. Many of the workers’ housing projects that were built in the late 1950s and 1960s are coming down and are being replaced with more modern apartment buildings. From what I can observe and gather, this is good and bad. It is good because workers’ housing blocks lacked elevators, had cramped conditions, and were generally poor conditions for anyone with mobility issues. It is bad because taking down housing is displacing the most vulnerable and creating more expensive housing that forces people to relocate. Aging in place and aging in community are not possible.
Shanghai is China’s only WHO Age-Friendly City (the United States only has two. Please take a look at some of the excellent work being done in Portland, Oregon and New York, New York). Through this initiative and in partnership with Habitat, Shanghai is pursuing an age-friendly housing project. This project works with Shanghai’s Civil Affairs Bureau and Senior Citizens’ Foundation in order to create a more livable city for older adults.
Community support and health: I am unable to find much data on this, and no one I briefly spoke with had much information in the healthcare system for older adults. In the lead up to the Olympics the City dedicated some money to allow older adults access to health services. Perhaps a minor victory, but more recently the age to receive free medical care dropped from 100 to 95+… Currently, there are plans and discussions to re-socialize universal healthcare, but how the government will pay for it is unclear. The Chinese government views it as a national investment.
Respect and social inclusion: Other than the way drivers operate I have seen nothing but respect for older adults. Families are often seen walking together, grandparents take grandchildren to the park to play, and older adults maintain relationships outside of the home.
Social participation: There seems to be many activities that include a variety of ages. Dancing in parks and social events. Many of these events are of mixed ages.
Civic Participation and Employment: Employment is a very different social context than the United States’ norm of retirement or “encore jobs”; I believe that the older workers here must continue working because it is their only choice. Participation in general is a very different concept in China, the public process and public voice is not expressed or heard as in the United States.
Preliminary conclusion: Beijing must make strives to improve livability for older adults. The 12th 5-year plan called for the curbing of sky-rocketing housing prices, to make major shifts in transportation policy, and to move toward universal health coverage. These efforts, if realized, would provide great improvements for older adults. Overall, older adults in Beijing use their city well, especially considering the limitations. Social inclusion, mobility, and respect appear to be strong. Transportation, housing, and healthcare should be the focus.