Two senior citizens take a walk on the grounds of a nursing home in Jinjiang, Fujian Province, on March 27 (XINHUA)
China is aging. The number of people aged 60 or above reached 241 million by the end of 2017, accounting for 17.3 percent of the total population, according to the Office of the National Working Commission on Aging.
In May, the China Research Center on Aging (CRCA) released a survey showing that the elderly in the country are facing multiple challenges, including a generally low income, an increasing need for professional care, chronic diseases and other health problems like a lack of quality sleep.
"Dealing with issues caused by an aging population should be a systematic project," said Dang Junwu, deputy head of CRCA, adding that addressing urgent problems and making mid- and long-term plans are both important.
An aging city
The aging issue has been pressing on many Chinese cities, including Quanzhou in southeast China's Fujian Province. According to local government data, by the end of 2017, the city was home to 1.02 million senior citizens aged 60 or above, accounting for 13.64 percent of the city's entire population. The number is expected to exceed 1.24 million by 2020.
Quanzhou has its own unique conditions for its aging population. Shang Lilin, Deputy Director of the Office of the Quanzhou Working Commission on Aging, told Beijing Review that a pleasant climate and a green environment contribute to the longevity of Quanzhou citizens. By the end of 2017, the number of people aged over 80 was 148,000.
In addition, many young people go to other cities to work, especially economically-developed metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, leaving their elderly relatives behind. This group of seniors—called empty nesters—also adds pressure to overall elderly care.
According to Shang, there were elderly service stations in most communities in the past, providing services and attending emergencies, but it was far from sufficient. She said that an increasing senior population and relatively little land make it hard to build new nursing homes, thus home care becomes the ideal solution.
To deal with the growing needs of senior citizens and their families, in October 2014, a municipal elderly care and service platform was jointly established in the city by the Quanzhou sub-branch of China Telecom, a state-owned enterprise and one of China's largest service operators, as well as Quanzhou Hekang Smart Elderly Care, a private company focusing on home-based care for seniors.
The platform's first step was to offer telecom services to the elderly to ensure they were connected to service providers when they encountered difficulties or emergencies. The platform produced a smartphone specifically designed for seniors with built-in apps such as location-based services, emergency calling and after services, and a locator to track the position of the person calling for help.
Smart elderly care products (LU YAN)
A new model
Despite its seeming convenience, the smartphone could prove to be difficult for seniors to accept or understand, since they had never seen it before. Taking this into consideration, the local government rolled it out by including the model as part of its senior care project.
A total of 7,000 senior citizens, including those suffering from poverty, disabilities and the loss of their only child, as well as empty nesters, were selected as target beneficiaries. As a trial run of the project, the government offered them a customized smartphone for free and a call fee of 20 yuan ($3) per month for a year.
"It was hard at the beginning. Many seniors thought we were trying to promote our products and asked us to leave their apartment when we visited them door-to-door," Hong Yuehui, Executive Deputy General Manager of Quanzhou Hekang Smart Elderly Care, told Beijing Review.
But both the local government and the companies involved didn't give up and continued to popularize the concept, letting people know what the project really was about. The first to take the plunge and try the smartphone saw immediate benefits, which led to a snowball effect. More elderly citizens began to give it a try and accepted the new service after seeing tangible results.
According to data provided by the local government, 1,200 out of the 7,000 seniors received services by calling the hotline with their smartphones in 2014, including apartment cleaning and bathing, eating and going out assistance.
Currently, the number of beneficiaries exceeds 30,000 from the original 7,000. By the end of the year, the target is expected to cover all citizens aged over 80. Subsequently, the total number of senior citizens in Quanzhou using the service will be 150,000.
"Users have the right to refuse our service until they truly believe that they can benefit from it," Shang explained.
Moreover, elderly people who were not covered through the free service project can join by paying for the service. By the end of May, the hotline had answered 240,000 calls for assistance and had made 400,000 outbound before and after service calls.
Besides smartphones and related services, other elderly-customized products have been developed such as alarm clock pill cases, GPS tracking shoes and smart wireless hearing aids, with others under research and development.
To make the platform more efficient and smart, the Quanzhou sub-branch of China Telecom has made full use of its advanced technologies such as cloud computing, Big Data, wire and wireless networks, and location-based services to integrate information and resources.
In the meantime, Quanzhou authorities introduced several policies and regulations in 2017, setting elderly care as a key task for the government. According to the policies, an increasing number of professional elderly care service organizations will be established.
Service call operators work at a hotline center at Quanzhou Hekang Smart Elderly Care in Quanzhou, southeast China’s Fujian Province, on June 15 (LU YAN)
A market conduct
According to Shang, who was one of the initiators, the project is partially sponsored by the local government but is led by the market and companies in the senior care business.
"Elderly care is a social undertaking, and the local government supports initiatives of all sectors in society," she noted, adding that only with the combination of an active market, innovative enterprises and the helping hand of the government can elderly care continue to improve and offer more concrete advantages to the public.
Hong said the entire model is actually a successful example of China's 40-year reform and opening-up period when the planned economy transitioned to a market economy, allowing market players to unleash their vitality. Through cooperation and competition, they are driven to improve their products and services.
Now Quanzhou's senior care model is spreading to more areas across the country. "People in charge of elderly work from over 30 prefecture-level cities in eight provinces have come to learn from our experiences," Shang said.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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