Many older peo­ple who live with their chil­dren in un­fa­mil­iar places miss their home­towns and friends, as Wang Keju re­ports.

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - China - Contact the writer at wangkeju@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Agrow­ing num­ber of el­derly peo­ple are mov­ing to China’s larger cities to be with their mar­ried chil­dren and help look af­ter grand­chil­dren, but rather than find­ing a source of so­lace, many of these se­niors, far from friends and fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings, feel lost, aban­doned and iso­lated.

At 1:10 pm one Wednesday, 61-year-old Chen Lizhen waited for a free shut­tle bus to ar­rive and take her to a su­per­mar­ket about 15 min­utes away. It was the third time that week she had vis­ited the store and her fif­teenth trip that month.

Two hours later, with just a bag of ap­ples and some cu­cum­bers in a shop­ping cart, Chen was still strolling around the store, un­aware of how many times she had cir­cled the fruit and veg­etable sec­tion. With still an hour to go be­fore it would be time for her grand­son to leave kinder­garten, she de­cided to stick around for a while longer.

At one time, she wasn’t part of the fur­ni­ture at a su­per­mar­ket. In­stead Chen, a huge fan of Huang­mei Opera, was an ama­teur but ac­tive per­former with a group of the­ater­go­ers. She was nick­named “Lit­tle Ma Lan”, af­ter a fa­mous fe­male Huang­mei Opera artist in her neigh­bor­hood in Huain­ing, a county in the east­ern prov­ince of An­hui.

She hasn’t sung for four years. Since com­ing to Bei­jing in 2013 when her daugh­ter-in­law gave birth to a baby boy, Chen has be­come a 24-hour house­keeper, babysit­ting her grand­son and tak­ing care of her son and his fam­ily.

It’s not a re­ward­ing ex­is­tence. “The idea of sneak­ing back to Huain­ing has oc­curred to me many times,” she said.

Se­nior “mi­grants” such as Chen in cities such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai can eas­ily be spot­ted in their res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties, at school gates or in su­per­mar­kets.

They left their home­towns to live with their grown-up chil­dren who work in the cities. In­stead, in many cases, they sim­ply have be­come child­min­ders for the fam­ily’s third gen­er­a­tion, and even though they come from dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try and speak dif­fer­ent di­alects, they share the same name: “se­nior drifters”.

Float­ing pop­u­la­tion

Ac­cord­ing to The Devel­op­ment of the Mi­grant Pop­u­la­tion, a re­port pub­lished by the Na­tional Health and Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion last year, peo­ple aged 60 and older ac­count for 7.2 per­cent of China’s float­ing pop­u­la­tion of 247 mil­lion. That’s about 18 mil­lion peo­ple, roughly twice the pop­u­la­tion of New York, and about 68 per­cent of these el­derly mi­grants re­lo­cated vol­un­tar­ily to live with their chil­dren or care for grand­chil­dren.

Last year, there were 222 mil­lion peo­ple age 60 and older in China, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics.

“The phe­nom­e­non of ‘se­nior drifters’ is closely re­lated to the ever-grow­ing num­ber of mi­grants and on­go­ing ur­ban­iza­tion. Just as young mi­grants strug­gle to get by in cities, se­niors who move to the me­trop­o­lises will en­counter even more trou­ble,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Ren­min Univer­sity of China in Bei­jing.

In Chen’s case that “trou­ble” is the dilemma in which she has been caught since her 3-year-old grand­son be­gan kinder­garten last year.

Now sud­denly with­out com­pany, she has no way of killing time. With few friends to chat with, let alone to sing Huang­mei Opera, she is swamped by mem­o­ries of the old days back home, com­bined with lone­li­ness and de­pres­sion.

In ad­di­tion, treat­ment costs are higher in large cities, ac­cord­ing to Zhang, who noted that the cost of treat­ment for a cold in Bei­jing is about 300 yuan ($45), but less than 30 yuan in her home­town.

Al­though she can ab­sorb costs of that na­ture, when­ever she has had a more se­ri­ous ill­ness, Zhang has been forced to re­turn to Hei­longjiang to be re­im­bursed.

Ev­ery time she went home, she re­turned to Bei­jing with many lo­cal prod­ucts, and a large bag of med­i­ca­tion.

“Peo­ple on the sub­way looked at me as though I was an il­le­gal ‘medicine dealer’,” she said.

Af­ter a cou­ple of pe­ri­ods in the hospi­tal, she is for the first time con­sid­er­ing go­ing home for good. “I’m at an age when ill­nesses get in line to find me. I can­not place such a heavy bur­den on my daugh­ter,” she said.

An un­bear­able bur­den

Chen Biao, pro­fes­sor of geri­atric science at Cap­i­tal Med­i­cal Univer­sity in Bei­jing, said time is catch­ing up with many se­nior drifters.

“Peo­ple aged 65 to 69 are at the low­est level of health. There­fore, once their health in­surance is ex­hausted, the cost of treat­ment be­comes an un­bear­able bur­den for their fam­i­lies,” he said.

The med­i­cal needs of se­nior drifters di­rectly in­flu­ence their sense of be­long­ing, and the gov­ern­ment has long been push­ing for cross-pro­vin­cial med­i­cal fee set­tle­ments to pro­vide greater con­ve­nience and help.

Last month, the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and So­cial Se­cu­rity con­firmed that the ground­work has been com­pleted to build an “ex­press­way” for the di­rect set­tle­ment of cross-pro­vin­cial hospi­tal ex­penses. That will al­low se­nior drifters to apply for re­im­burse­ment of med­i­cal ex­penses with­out go­ing home.

Con­fronted with these phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, many se­nior drifters are still wan­der­ing around large cities in desperation.

Chen’s son and his wife have been dis­cussing hav­ing a sec­ond baby. She was not happy when she heard the news.

“I miss my old pals. I re­ally hope I can go back and sing Huang­mei Opera with them,” she said.

DI TIANXING / FOR CHINA DAILY

XINHUA

Many se­niors who have moved to large cities to live with their adult chil­dren say they are los­ing touch with old friends at home and be­ing treated as un­paid babysit­ters or house­keep­ers.

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