China’s One-Child-Policy is one of the most an interesting social engineering experiments that I’ve ever come across. One on hand, you cannot see any other way forward for the government; especially with a population of 1.35 billion people. 20-odd million people live in Beijing, a number that really hits you when you try to use the subway during rush hour. People are packed, sardine-like, into each compartment with barely space to breath, let alone move. Getting on and off is a struggle in itself; I’ve seen people miss their stops simply because they couldn’t wade through the human crush. Everyday, I I’m left mind-blown by all the humanity that surrounds me.
The policy, which has been able to somewhat keep things in check population-wise, has, as radical policies are wont to do, opened a can of worms. One of the biggest ‘worm’ in the lot is the issue of what exactly to do with old people. In China, as in most developing nations, children shoulder the responsibility of taking care of their elderly parents. While this isn’t a problem in other countries because the burden is shared by the siblings, here in China the burden falls on one person. So, not only does a married couple have to take care of themselves and any child they have, they also have to take care of four other dependents, namely their parents. This has caused widespread discontent and handwringing.
One of the solutions that the government is looking at increasing the retirement age but even they know that it is a short-term solution. At the end of the day, something has to give. An eerie model village I visited outside Beijing revealed the future. It took me awhile to realise why I found it strange; I finally figured out why. There were almost no young people in the village. All the young people had left to seek their fortune in the big city. Thankfully, the local council helped the old people as much as possible. Either way though, this village sans young people seemed rather sad and desolate.
This got me thinking about my grandparents in Umutara. Fortunately, there are still enough relatives living in the village to monitor and take care of them but I can only imagine just how desperate things would be if there weren’t there to do so. They fetch them water, take care of the calves, produce food, ensure that they take their medication, wash their clothes, clean their homes and take them to hospital when they get ill. And most important, they keep them company. This state of affairs is tenable now but it wont in the next few years to come.
When we examine Rwanda’s development plans, one of the things that stand out is the role of
rural-urban migration amid increased urbanisation. This migration will result in young people fleeing the countryside to seek employment in the cities. Which is great. These people will be the workforce that Rwandan industry needs to move forward. However, that will leave the elderly in a pickle. The people who produced their food? Gone. Their primary caregivers? Gone. Even if their relatively well to do relations living in the cities keep sending them money for their upkeep, this will simply become a stop-gap move. So, what will happen next? The old men and women will move to the cities to live with their children. And as anyone knows,city living isn’t cheap. Guess who will have to bear that burden? The children. Throw in the fact that the elderly come with a myriad of challenges such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and other medical issues that need professional care and one can only imagine the stress that ensures.
In developed nations, the retirement home business is a booming industry. When the elderly are unable to take care of themselves, they go to these homes, where they find good, professional caregivers. While it seems harsh to send them there, in fact they are better catered for than if they’d remained with their children. I can understand why someone would be opposed to them, but imagine this situation. Would you prefer to sit in front of the television all day, forced to have conversations with the domestic help because no one else was home or would you prefer to be surrounded by people your age, medical professionals without feelings like you were being a burden?
The treatment of the elderly is something that we will have to tackle. Assuming that the status quo will remain indefinitely is foolhardy.