Ma Jiahui's children phoned at least twice a day to make sure their doddery old mother was well, living in fear that she might suddenly collapse and there would be no one to rescue her.
The 81-year-old woman, widowed three years ago, was living alone in the Qinan community in the Xicheng district in downtown Beijing. She has three children, but none is living with her.
"There is no place like home, my own home," said the grey-haired woman, "my sons and daughters all have work, and I don't want to be a bother to them."
"Empty-nesters", or people living, like Ma, without any younger relatives, now make up about half of the total 149 million Chinese aged above 60 year. The aging group of people had only increased the social security burden for China, where pensions are still low and rest-houses for the olds are under-funded.
Traditionally, old people are looked after by their children, but such a mode is getting increasingly impossible when economic development increased mobility among the masses.
The Qinan community, where Ma lives, has more than 1,200 people aged over 60, about 20 percent of the community population. For most of the old people, who live on a monthly pension of 1,000 yuan or less, decent pension housing or personal care services, which cost about the monthly pension, were too expensive.
"Even if I could afford to stay in the pension houses, I don't want to live there: it's not comfortable and I feel more of myself and easy in my apartment, which I have lived in for more than 50 years," she said.
Chen Bei, deputy head of the Xicheng district government, said such a mentality as Ma's was common among the old people she knew, which made home care a more favored choice for the old.
For the present, such home care, provided by community employees, includes services like providing meals, shaving, nail-clipping and even company and chatting, and prices are generally lower than those provided by companies.
"The meals on offer are specially for old people: low salt, low fat and less seasoning, just what we need and like," Ma said, but she added that prices were affordable for her, but still too much for lots of her friends.
At the Qinan community, a lunch costs seven yuan, and it costs another one yuan to have it delivered home. It costs at least ten yuan to have someone to pick up medicines from hospitals and costs more when you need to be accompanied to the hospital.
"When you become old and need help in too many things, money never seems enough," Ma said.
Yet, currently, the government is only subsidizing the most needy, said Chen Bei. A monthly 160-yuan subsidy is given to the people living on minimum allowance, those above 80 years old and the aged with chronic illness and motion difficulties.
"We still need to expand the subsidies to more people, and at the same time lower home care costs by using more government finance," Chen said.
Last month, ten government agencies, including the Office of the China National Committee on Aging (CNCA) and the National Development and Reform Commission, issued a guideline, requiring all urban communities to offer home care services for the aged by the end of 2010.
According to the plan, such services shall be available in 80 percent of rural towns and a third of villages across the country.
While urban communities may have the staff and money to provide such home care, the services would be more difficult in villages, where pensions are even lower, and the old people had to take care of their grandchildren left behind by migrant worker parents.
To address the problem, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged to reform pension and old-age insurance for urban people, villagers and migrant workers.
Liang Xiaosheng, a famed Chinese essayist and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), highlighted the problem of an aging society in his suggestions to the ongoing session. "The old shall get more out of China's economic achievements for which they have worked for almost all their lives," he said.
The service shall extend from meeting basic needs to offering legal and mental counseling for the old and financial investment options, he added.
Every Friday morning, Ma Jiahui plays electric piano for a chorus of 37 old men and women in the community. "Back to years when I could, I played accordion, but that's too straining for me now," she said.
Ma also taught the group to read music scores and her friends said her unclouded personality was rather inspiring to many.
The old woman has high blood pressure, heart and respiratory difficulties and needs help going up and down the stairs, but still has high hopes for people like her. "Every day I'm alive, I'm living a respectful and happy life, and I wish the same for every old person," she said.
(Xinhua News Agency March 11, 2008)