China’s elderly population now totals 185m. How will the country cope?by Helen Gao / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at Beijing No.1 Social Welfare House, a nursing home with a 100-year waiting list
When I walk into my grandparents’ bedroom, grandma is not in her usual spot, reclining against the rusty headboard of her queen-sized bed. Instead, she is sitting on grandpa’s bed, two feet apart from her own, while he perches on a creaky chair by the window, a dazed look on his face. Spread out on grandma’s bed is the cotton quilt she uses all year long. Mum, sitting on a plastic stool in the aisle, is stitching a piece of fabric onto it. Hearing my footsteps, she raises her eyes briefly: “She’s here!” she announces.
A monthly visit to my grandparents’ place is a family ritual of ours. For as long I can remember, my parents and I have made regular trips to their home in south-western Beijing, diagonally across the city from us. We first travelled by bus, clutching boxes of seasonal fruits and freshly slaughtered duck or chicken, while struggling to keep our foothold in the tightly packed compartment. Soon we switched to taxi and, a few years later, a newly purchased Toyota. Eight years ago, aged 17, I went to the United States to study. Returning last year, I rejoined my parents on their visits. We have moved closer to my grandparents’ place, but the roads we used to breeze through have now become as crowded as those buses we rode more than a decade ago.
Amid the whirlwind of changes in my life, my grandparents’ place feels oddly static: a pile of shoeboxes lies under a layer of dust; the light bulb in the bathroom takes so long to fully illuminate that it is kept perpetually lit; the quilt on grandma’s bed has accompanied her for decades, its floral patterns now a blur of faded red, yellow and green. Twice a year, she unstitches the bottom of the quilt to wash it, before stitching it back on. This year, she picked up the needle and after half an hour put it down, reaching for the telephone. “Could you come a little earlier this weekend?” she asked mum with a sigh.
I sat down with grandma. She peppers me with questions about my new apartment, my roommates and my writing projects while shooting occasional looks in mum’s direction.…