Updated: 2014-09-19 07:25
LIANG LUWEN FOR CHINA DAILY
The elderly now form the backbone of childcare in China, as He Na reports from Beijing.
First person Zhao Wei
We ask too much of our parents
Zhao Wei, 39, an insurance company manager in Chengdu, Sichuan province
In 2007, my parents moved south from Shenyang, Liaoning province, to help take care of my daughter. They were used to life in the north, and were uncomfortable in Chengdu because of the high humidity and the lack of heating in winter.
To make matters worse, my father was diagnosed with congenital heart disease, but his medical insurance wasn't valid in Chengdu, and my parents had to travel back to Shenyang so he could have surgery. They returned to Chengdu after the operation, but it was obvious dad's health wasn't as good as before. We became frequent visitors to the hospital, and the medical fees left us in debt.
My father's poor health meant my mother had to look after him and my daughter. She never complained, though.
For a while things were OK, but then my mom was taken to the hospital with abdominal pains and was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Because she had been worried that having two sick parents in the house would cause me problems, she had been suffering in silence, and taking painkillers secretly. After the diagnosis, I suddenly realized that she hadn't had a medical checkup for several years.
She passed away two months after the diagnosis. My father was inconsolable, he felt very guilty. He died from a heart attack a year later.
Sometimes I feel as though I was indirectly responsible for their deaths, as though I killed them. If I could turn back the clock, I would let them stay in Shenyang and visit regularly.
We ask too much of our parents and give too little in return. I have a large house, a nice car and a good income, but I'll never get my parents back.
Zhao Wei spoke with He Na.
Before her daughter gave birth, the farthest Chen Zhijuan had ever been from her home in Siping, a small city in Northeast China's Jilin province, was Dalian in neighboring Liaoning province, about 585 kilometers away.
The 59-year-old never imagined that one day she would settle in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, thousands of kilometers away in South China. She remembers she was so nervous during the flight - her first time on a plane - that she couldn't let go of the armrest on her seat.
Although Chen has lived in the coastal city for three years, taking care of her granddaughter, she doesn't have any close friends, and still feels like an outsider.
To adapt to her new life, Chen attempted to change many of the habits she'd formed over half a century, but her efforts were fruitless. She's grown inured to complaints that she uses too much oil and salt in her cooking, even though she had previously won acclaim for her skill in the kitchen, and she's toned down her strong northeastern accent for fear her granddaughter will copy it and be looked down on by the southerners. She's also learned to bear the loneliness of her new home where people speak with an accent she doesn't understand.
"I thought that the longer I lived, the better things would be, but it's not true. I'm homesick, and long to see my relatives and friends more than ever," she said.
Chen's one source of joy comes from watching her granddaughter grow up, but it's cold comfort in the face of so many problems.
Her husband passed away in 2011 and she longs for someone to talk with, but her everyday exchanges with her daughter and son-in-law are limited.
"They work hard and often come home late. Generally, they go straight to their bedroom. I can read their tiredness on their faces. I want to go home, but my daughter objects fiercely," she said.
Recently, her hair has started to fall out, and she has insomnia. When her daughter took her to the hospital, the doctor said Chen is depressed and needs treatment.
With society becoming increasingly competitive, a greater number of young people are leaving home, seeking job opportunities in the cities. They marry, settle down and start families. That movement has also affected a large number of older people, who have abandoned their dreams of retirement and moved to the cities to care for their grandchildren.
A recent survey shows that China has about 144 million people aged 60 or older, and "old newcomers" - the name given to those who leave home to take care of their children's children - account for 10 percent of them. Increased mobility and the rise in the elderly population means the number will be much higher in the future.
"It looks like a heartwarming picture, three generations of the same family living happily under one roof, but many older people are encountering loneliness and have problems establishing new social relationships in strange places," Zhang Jiming, a senior psychologist at Beijing Normal University, said.
The severing of personal relationships, a shrinking social network, unfamiliar food, and the language differences between north and south all contribute to this anxiety, he said.
"Compared with the young, older people take far longer to become attuned to new environments and gain a sense of security and mental ease. It's not easy for them to change old habits and build new relationships," he added.
Homesickness is a curse for Zheng Fuyan. The 52-year-old takes care of her granddaughter in Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, while her husband, who is still eight years away from retirement, remains in their hometown of Ji'an, about seven hours away by road.
Her son-in-law's parents are in a similar predicament, so the two groups of parents decided to split the duties, with the grandmothers alternating for three-month spells in Changchun.
"I've never been separated from my husband before, and every time I go home I find he's much thinner. He's in poor health, and knows nothing about cooking." Zheng said.
"I hadn't expected it would be so difficult to take care of a kid nowadays. There are so many requirements: learning how to clean the feeding bottle; sterilizing; the proportions of milk powder and water; the correct way to hold the kid; and doing everything according to a timetable. My daughter often becomes angry with me over trivial matters," she added.
Afraid that her granddaughter may wet the bed or kick off her blankets, Zheng gets up three or four times a night, as does her daughter's mother-in-law. Both women now have mild depression.
"I look much older than before," Zheng said.
As frictions escalated and health problems arose, the four grandparents decided to provide the money to hire a nanny, but, fearing that a nanny might abuse the baby, their children refused the offer.
The expectations heaped on grandparents such as Zheng have resulted in a growing number of older people attending psychological clinics. Zhang, of Beijing Normal University, urged that greater attention be paid to older people's psychological health.
"Young people should refer to older family members when making family decisions, and also help them cultivate new interests and friends," he said, adding that community activities can provide good platforms to help older people assimilate.