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Friday 31 October  

Taiwan's elderly suffer as family values change

Published on 11 March 2012 - 9:07am
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With four grown-up children, ample savings and her own house, Lee Hua thought she could live out her golden years in modest comfort. Now, the 77-year-old collects recyclable garbage to make ends meet.

In a slow and frail voice, Lee explained how she was forced out of her home and now lives in a shabby rented house outside Taipei, has no money left in the bank and has all but lost contact with her three daughters and one son.

"I've cried so much that my eyesight has become really poor. Now I try not to think too much about what happened," she said, sitting amid piles of used carton, plastic bottles and milk powder cans she has picked up from the street.

Lee, who earns a meagre Tw$500 ($17) a month selling trash to recycling businesses, represents a new group of Taiwanese elderly left to their own devices by a young generation dismissing age-old notions of filial piety.

Her life took a turn for the worse 13 years ago when her oldest daughter and son-in-law talked the then newly-widowed woman into loaning them most of her money for his business.

They never returned the money, and have since disappeared out of her life, she recalled, fighting back tears.

"I never thought I'd end up with a son-in-law like that who cheated me out all my money. This must be fate," she said.

Her second daughter ignores her too and her only son is in prison for drug abuse, she said. While her youngest daughter stays in touch, she cannot offer financial support because of her limited income as a seamstress.

Nearly 2,800 senior citizens sought help over abuse, negligence or abandonment in 2010, according to the latest government data, up from 2,100 in 2009.

The actual number is likely much higher as some would rather "save face" than admitting that they have unfilial children, said Lee Hsiung, chief of the Elders Foundation in Taipei.

Social workers described Lee as far from an isolated case, and said that shifting family values meant a lesser sense of responsibility in some adults towards their ageing parents.

Traditional Chinese culture attached great importance to filial piety and male adults, even married ones, normally lived with their parents so they could look after them.

"Raising a child means safety in old age," according to a popular saying, and that used to be true. Large families were the norm.

Today, family structure has changed as couples opt for fewer children, causing Taiwan's birth rate to be one of the world's lowest, while more adults choose to live alone amid rising individualism, sociologists say.

Taiwan's population of 23 million is greying rapidly, as people aged 65 and over account for 10.7 percent, well above the 7.0 percent level at which a society is defined as "ageing" by the World Health Organisation.

Wu Chiang-sheng, a staffer at the Elders Foundation in Taipei, said he has handled even more serious cases than Lee's, citing a 90-year-old woman with seven children, each "insisting it's the other's duty to take care of her."

The government is considering a bill to jail adults who fail to look after their elderly parents for up to one year following rising cases of abandonment.

A form of economic abuse referred to as "gnawing at the bones of the old" sees healthy, capable and even well-educated adults -- even those in their 30s and 40s -- choose to remain jobless and live with their parents, relying on them for money, said Wu.

Taiwan's jobless rate stood at 4.18 percent in January while unemployment in the 15-24 age group was a much higher 11.64 percent. The island's economic growth eased sharply to 1.89 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, the slowest pace in more than two years.

Other seniors wind up having to raise their grandchildren, as their children struggle to find jobs.

"I think people in their 40s and 50s should brace themselves and not expect their children to look after them in the future. They should actively plan their life after retirement," Lee of the Elders Foundation said.

The Federation for the Welfare of the Elderly has been promoting the concept of "elderly economic safety," such as encouraging senior citizens to put their money in a trust.

Others call for rethink of the entire notion that the young should necessarily look after the old.

"Young people don't necessarily make more money or are more capable," said Chiou Tian-juh, a sociologist at Shih Hsin University in Taipei. "We should build a new concept of the capable caring for the less capable."

Social workers say it is up to the government to assume a greater role in the care of the elderly, as the old method of leaving it to the young no longer works.

President Ma Ying-jeou has called taking care of senior citizens a "major challenge" for his government, which plans to enact a new law on long-term care for the elderly around 2017.

This year, the government is set to start a trial of the "reverse mortgage" for childless elderly, who can mortgage their houses to the banks for monthly allowances while still living in the properties until their deaths.

Lee, the elderly garbage collector, however, remains sceptical how much help the government can give.

"The government can't do very much, especially since the economy is bad," she said. "I only hope that one day my son will get a decent job so he can take care of me."

© ANP/AFP

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