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China’s one-child policy to haunt families caring for elderly for decades, study finds

The Chinese mainland’s traditional reliance on family members to care for the elderly is expected to be tested as the demographic effects of the one-child policy grow more pronounced, a survey has found.

The average number of surviving children for people in their 60s has declined to 2.5, while those in their 80s have more than four children on average, the China health and retirement longitudinal study by Peking University found.

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It surveyed more than 20,000 residents aged 45 years or above from 150 counties across the country in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

Nearly half of the elderly live independently without help from their children, it found. While more than half had children in the same neighbourhood, county or city, the distance between the homes is rising.

“Those who are in their 80s now still have three to four children and can rely on their children for care, but what didn’t appear in the 2011 survey but appeared in the survey in 2015 was that those who are in their 60s now will find it difficult to rely solely on family for care [in their later years],” said Zhao Yaohui, a professor with the university’s National School of Development.

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“It means policymakers need to come up with measures to encourage the market to play a bigger role and lower the threshold to entering the industry of providing elderly care.”

The survey found a gradual process of delaying the retirement age – as Beijing is doing –was possible. The proportion of men between 55 and 59 who have taken some form of retirement fell from 53 per cent in 2011 to 41 per cent in 2015.

About 87 per cent of men aged between 60 and 64, and 86 per cent of women in their 50s, do not have health conditions limiting work. “The finding means [delaying retirement] is a feasible choice … as many are physically able to work even after their legal retirement age now,” Zhao said.