Monday, May 07, 2018

The Psychic Desolation of Loneliness

"Lonely old man in his 80s Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness. I retired from a scientific research institute in Tianjin, with a monthly pension of 6,000 RMB [$1,200 Canadian] a month".
"I won't go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kind-hearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I'm dead."
"Chinese people my age have really suffered."
Han Zicheng, Tianjin, China
Han Zicheng, 85, rides his bicycle to a nearby market in Tianjin, China, in January. The trip to buy food and vegetables was part of his daily routine. (Yan Cong/For The Washington Post)

At 85 years of age, Mr. Han, a grandfather, wrote a plea to be posted in a public place, and it read: "Looking for someone to adopt me." With several copies, one was taped to a bus shelter in his neighbourhood. He had expectations. And he returned home to await whatever would come through as a response to his advertisement, wanting to integrate into someone else's household, to be viewed as part of someone else's family, to have his presence there valued, to no longer be alone.

His life had been long and not without the drama of being involved in political and social cataclysmic events of change in China. Back then when he was young and facing life's challenges he met them and went on to other challenges. But nothing prepared him for an old age of loneliness, with no one to talk with, no one to care about his well-being. His plight is, without exaggeration, shared by many. Not only in the world's most populous country, but everywhere around the globe, to various degrees.

His wife had died. His sons were busy with their own lives. One had emigrated to Canada. They seldom called. Isn't that the order of things in life? His neighbours were younger than him, they all had families and children to raise; no time to share with an old man. Hr rode his bicycle to market to buy whatever he needed. But he was concerned that eventually age would impact his health and there was no one to care, no one to help him.

China's tradition whereby the young looked after the aged has been inverted. The one-child policy left one child to look to the care of elderly parents; those that did. Fifteen percent of the population is over 60 and by 2040 one in four will join the ranks of the elderly. Representing a dwindling workforce in a country geared to manufacturing production.

Because he had advertised so publicly he had drawn the attention of a local television program who sent a crew to interview him. And then he began receiving calls. Where previously Mr. Han had stopped neighbours to inform them how lonely he was and how he needed attention and the prospect of dying frightened him, there had been no satisfying response. Now the telephone kept ringing.

Despite which he concluded that what he had imagined might be the answer to his concerns was unrealistic and would never materialize. Offers he was getting were of a light, temporary nature, nothing substantial. He had experienced the Japanese invasion of China, while a boy, then as a teen lived through the Cultural Revolution. He met his wife, married, took night classes, then went to university. How could he ever have foreseen being alone in the future to fend for himself by himself?

At one time in Chinese cultural and social history the Han family like all other families would live in a compound, the various generations living together, with the young looking after the elderly, the older family members helping to raise the young. That was then, and it no longer exists; the family unit as good as disintegrated into smaller units each looking after its own. The government administering such a vast population had no senior care file.

According to Jiang Quanbao, professor of demography at the Institute for Population and Development Studies at Xi'an Jiaotong University, China's challenge is represented both by an aging society and a developing country: China "got old before it got rich", he stated. Mr. Han can afford to pay for a decent room in a nursing home but Chinese hesitate to make a move that will cause others to think their children had abandoned them.

Mr. Han spoke of a falling-out with one son and the other living in Canada who rarely called him. He kept their contact numbers confidential with the aside that he had no intention of embarrassing them. Soon he no longer received calls in response to  his advertisement. The winter months proceeded and Mr. Han was assailed with morbid thoughts of dying alone, lying in his bed, his corpse discovered by a stranger.

In February he called a help line for seniors, the Beijing Love Delivery Hotline whose founder, Xu Kun meant it to serve the needs of the elderly in an effort to prevent suicide among seniors living alone. The elderly, she said, become angrier in lock-step with aging, their crankiness driving people from them. "Family and society find it hard to understand the grumpiness, the depression that comes with growing old", she explained.

A young law student was one of the few people responding to Mr. Han's plight whom he could tolerate; she kept in touch by telephone calls; she lived in the south. She chatted with him on March 13. The following day she missed a call from him. When she called next in early April, someone else's voice responded at his end. His son Han Chang had flown in from Canada after his father died on March 17.

It was  his heart. He didn't die at home alone. He was taken to hospital. And had someone to talk with at the end. He wasn't alone when he died; that last and final issue of his concerned fears was alleviated with an alternate outcome. A little bit of benevolent grace to calm his final hours.

TIANJIN, CHINA - JANUARY 19: Han Zicheng, 85, sits in bed to take off his pants, revealing the wool pants inside that he usually wears at home. (Photo by Yan Cong for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
TIANJIN, CHINA - JANUARY 19: Han Zicheng, 85, sits in bed to take off his pants, revealing the wool pants inside that he usually wears at home. (Photo by Yan Cong for The Washington Post via Getty Images)  (2018 The Washington Post)

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