Taiwan’s elderly suffer as family values change
Nearly 2,800 senior citizens sought help over abuse,
negligence or abandonment in 2010
Taiwan: 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
“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
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
“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 aging
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,
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
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,
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
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,”
saidChiou 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.”