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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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China's shifting family structure

Jun. 19, 2017

China's population is now aging faster than any other in human history. Decades of the one-child policy created what is called a "4-2-1 family structure," and that has caused a number of serious problems.

The name "4-2-1" refers to a family that has 4 grandparents, 2 parents, and only 1 child. This inverted pyramid represents a dramatic change in Chinese society.

In the past, elderly people could expect their adult children to look after them. But today, the care-giving they can expect has been reduced.

About half of the elderly population is living alone. Financial difficulties have increased for them, as have suicides.

Shanghai is helping protect the rights of the elderly by providing free legal consultations.

One couple that visited recently says they don't get along with their son and his wife. They worry that they might lose their home, or never see their grandchild.

"My granddaughter is sad about this situation, and we don't want to cause more harm," says the woman.

One of the lawyers volunteering at the center is Li Dongfang. "Some requests for help come through social media," she says.

Other calls for help come by e-mail or post. Li herself receives over 1,000 a year.

She has noticed a trend. Elderly people are being treated like a nuisance, or even insulted by their children's spouses.

"Some people even try to strip their aging parents of their property. Working adults see taking care of their parents as a lower priority than making money to pay for their children's education. That leaves them feeling stress from both sides," says Li.

A frequent visitor to the legal center is Tong.

"She comes to see me even if she has no issue to discuss," says Li.

Now 81 years old, Tong has been struggling financially.

"My son doesn't support me at all," she says.

She lives alone in a rented apartment. Most of her pension goes to rent or medical expenses related to heart disease, so she has been cutting down on food.

"This is lunch for 3 days. I have become a light eater," says Tong.

Her son lives nearby. He works as a cook, but his income is not stable. He saves what he can for his daughter's university education. They have not spoken for a few years.

Tong's thoughts on the future are bleak. "I don't blame my son. This is my fate. I don't know why I am so miserable. What if I can no longer walk? I would take sleeping pills and die," she says.

The suicide rate for the elderly has more than doubled over the past 25 years.

The number of people over 60 in the country is already estimated at 220 million. That is projected to rise to nearly half a billion by 2050. Those numbers are raising concerns about suicide rates and other issues.

The central government is working to raise pension payouts and health insurance subsidies. Other measures aim to expand business markets related to seniors.

There are some efforts underway to help elderly people abandoned by their families.

In rural areas with many residents in need, local governments are building shared housing for the elderly.

At one such facility, there are about 20 residents, each paying about $30 a month in rent. The facility was converted from an elementary school that had closed down.

But limited funding means there is no nursing staff.

"We have no choice but to help each other when we get sick or in trouble," says one of the residents.

To lower food costs, the school yard was turned into a vegetable garden.

"We produce kidney beans, radishes, and Chinese cabbages, among others. We harvested twice this year. We don't use agrichemicals, so everything is safe for elderly people," says a resident.

But only a few areas have such facilities.

An expert points out the cause of this problem.

"The real problem facing the Chinese society is that the government has been too slow in addressing the aging population and unable to establish the system we need. If the government does not face the issue now and work out some measures, it will be too late," says Peking University Professor Lu Jiehua.

The welfare system needs to be reformed immediately to address the rapidly-aging society.