by Xinhua Writer Wang Aihua
SHANGHAI, Oct. 26 (Xinhua) -- For 90-year-old Zhang Baofen, "Senior Citizen's Day", or the Double Ninth Festival on Monday, meant a nice dinner at home in Shanghai and flowers from her five middle-aged sons and daughters.
Thousands of kilometers away, Liang Zuzhen, 72, who lives in the rural area of the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, celebrated the day by worshipping his ancestors and enjoying a well-prepared dinner with his children.
The Double Ninth Festival, which falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, was traditionally celebrated for being auspicious as the pronunciation of "nine" in Chinese is the same as the word for "eternity".
In recent years, it has been celebrated as a day for the elderly when younger generations show filial piety.
More than 8.3 percent of China's 1.3-billion people are aged 65or over, and in most cities, more than 50 percent of the elderly live without the company of their children.
In rural areas, where the senior population accounts for more than 70 percent of the country's total, the majority still follow centuries of tradition of living with and relying on their children after they can no longer farm.
Due to the family planning policy initiated about three decades ago and the urbanization drive that attracted a large number of rural laborers to the cities, care for the elderly is posing new challenges.
For Zhang, who gets a pension that covers her living expenses, money is not an issue. But she has to live with her children alternately, moving from one child's home to another's, for several months at a time.
Zhang's 26-year-old granddaughter, Wang Jieting, does not worry about money for her grandmother or her parents when they retire.
"But I do see pressure when my parents get old as I am the only child taking care of them," she said. "Maybe I'll have to leave them in nursing homes when they are too old to take care of themselves."
In rural areas, the elderly mainly depend on their life savings and children as most of them do not have pensions.
China launched a pilot rural pension program in August that is expected to cover 10 percent of counties by the end of 2009 and the whole country by 2020.
Unlike the previous pension program where funding was supplied by the farmers themselves, the new scheme would be subsidized by the central and local governments.
Farmers over 60 will receive a monthly pension set according to their area's standard income levels, after paying a fee to join the program.
Wang Zhenyao, director of the social welfare and charity promotion department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, voiced his concern that China's pace of aging went beyond their imagination.
It is estimated that by the middle of this century, the senior citizen population will account for a third of the total, compared with the current ratio of one in nine.
Chen Chuanshu, standing deputy director of the office for China National Committee on Ageing, said governments at all levels and departments, as well as society, should raise their awareness of dealing with ageing and take the problem into account when drafting future development strategies.
Local governments have been exploring new ways to offer care to the aged.
One model allows to live in their own homes, only going to the nursing homes during the day for meals or entertainment.
In Shanghai, where more than 20 percent of the population are above 60, community care for the elderly has developed into various forms, such as day-care centers and stations offering "talk."
Around 28,000 people in Shanghai now work in elderly care.
Li Xuebing, Zhang's daughter, said, "No matter what, we only want her to be healthy and happy."