Liang Kangmao, 74, a villager from south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, was sad and lonely on Thursday, which marks China’s day for the elderly.
The millennium-old Chongyang Festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar and fell on Thursday this year. It is an occasion for children to pay their respects to their elderly parents.
Neither Liang’s son nor his daughter were at home in Guangxi’s Hepu County. They both work as migrant workers in neighboring Guangdong Province.
Liang’s wife, Cai Mingyu, who had leprosy, committed suicide by drinking pesticide in January after being frustrated with the illness and little care from her children.
“Although their work is not far away, they come back only once a year during the Spring Festival,” said Liang, adding that the couple lives on a 2,000-yuan ($325) annual living allowance from their children and a 55-yuan monthly rural pension.
For rural elderly people, suicide is common, said Liu Jingzhen, a village doctor in Hepu County.
“Especially for those with serious illnesses or paralysis, suicide is ‘good’ for the children in many elderly people’s minds,” said Liu.
Liang admitted that in the eyes of his daughter-in-law, their early passing could reduce the burden.
In Liang’s village, six elderly villagers have taken their own lives since the beginning of this year.
Sociological research released in July on suicide among rural elderly people suggests that the phenomenon in China is so bad that it can no longer be neglected.
Liu Yanwu, a lecturer at Wuhan University, was in charge of the six-year study, which began in 2008. He told Xinhua that the suicide rate among the rural elderly has jumped from 100 per 100,000 to 500 per 100,000 in two decades. The research covers more than forty villages and eleven provinces in China.
In urbanizing China, hundreds of millions of young people growing up in rural areas rush to coastal cities as migrant workers. When they have made some money and want to settle down, they usually choose to bring their children, who were once raised by grandparents, to the city and leave the elderly at home unattended.
People age 60 and over accounted for 14.9 percent of China’s total population by the end of 2013, higher than the United Nations’ 10 percent threshold for an “aging country,” according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Statistics also show that the number of disabled elders in China has increased by 1.5 million from 2012 to 2013. It is estimated by the Chinese government that the aging population will reach its peak in 20 years.
Xiao Shuiyuan, a professor at Central South University, added that the suicide rate of Chinese senior citizens is triple the rate of other groups. Suicide might be a way for the rural elderly to ease the pain of urbanization, said Liu.
Some rural seniors kill themselves because of economic pressure. Liang told Xinhua that he and his wife would do the math before going to the hospital.
“Our annual income from farming is 3,000 yuan. If we spend 30,000 yuan to treat the disease and Cai can live for 10 years, it’s a good deal. If she turns out to survive only a few years, it is not worthwhile,” said Liang.
Liu Yanwu cited lack of care from children as a main motivation for suicide among seniors. He said that making sure the elderly are well cared for is very important in Chinese tradition, but the pressures of urban life leave the city’s newcomers no time for their rural parents.
Wei Hui, a migrant worker from southwest China’s Sichuan Province, lives in Nanning, the regional capital of Guangxi, with her husband and two children. Her family only goes back to their hometown once a year.
“It’s not only because the train tickets for the whole family are expensive, but also we have no time for vacation,” said Wei.
“My 74-year-old father has lived alone for six years and every year I give him 3,000 yuan. Recently I heard of three elderly people committing suicide in my village. I don’t know what to say,” said Wei.
Liu believes that despair is behind the suicides, and if they can find a way out, they won’t kill themselves.
Liang’s neighbor said that villagers are used to visiting others and chatting to pass the time. But as some rural elders move to cities with their children, the rural population has become smaller.
“We don’t know who to talk to,” said the neighbor. A survey from Huazhong University of Science and Technology earlier this year showed that 51.7 percent of elderly Chinese regard watching TV as their main source of entertainment.
The lack of elderly care facilities in most of China’s rural areas is making things worse.
When left-behind rural elderly are unable to take care of themselves and nursing homes are not available, it is natural for them to feel desperate, said Gu Hui, a researcher with the Anhui Academy of Social Sciences.
Community life is not as colorful in the countryside as in the cities. When rural people quit farming after reaching old age, most have nothing to do but feel bored and lonely, said Liu Yanwu.
The government is attempting to encourage institutions to provide more care to the rural elderly to tackle the problem.
With a 30,000-yuan subsidy from the Guangxi regional government, an elderly association was established in September 2012 at Silan Village in Yizhou City, providing fitness facilities and an entertainment center for the 317 elderly people in the village.
The association has invited the village doctor into the system to provide instant medical care on call for the elderly, said Fan Yushan, chairman of the association.
The elderly themselves have formed their own association and can take care of one another, thus reducing their loneliness and the number of suicides remarkably, said Fan.
Four similar elderly associations have also been set up in central China’s Hubei Province.
Inviting private institutions to build elderly care facilities in the countryside is another approach, said Wei Huayun, an official with the Guangxi regional civil affairs department, adding that government-sponsored elderly care facilities are far from enough.
He Xuefeng, head of the Chinese rural Governance Research Center with the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, called for the government to invest more in nursing homes and apartments for the elderly.
Organizing volunteers to regularly intervene with those at risk at an early stage can also reduce the frequency of suicides, he said.