by Xiao Lixin
BEIJING, Oct. 23 (Xinhuanet) -- Chinese people first encountered the term "empty nest" in a work of famous writer Bing Xin in 1980. Bing described vividly the solitary and dreary life of a couple in their twilight years. When Bing's work was published, "empty nests" were still isolated cases, but in the three decades that have passed, it has become a widespread social phenomenon. And with society and the economy developing at a faster pace, the condition of elderly couples has worsened.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs' latest data show that more than half of the families in China are "empty nest" households, with the figure being as high as 70 percent in some big cities.
There were 41.5 million "empty nest" old people aged 65 years or above in the country in 2010, and their number is expected to exceed 51 million by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), accounting for nearly a quarter of the total senior citizens' population. Experts even say that "empty nest" families will become the major pattern in Chinese cities and even many rural areas, dealing a blow to the traditional family support system and requiring the government to take greater care of the material and spiritual needs of senior citizens.
With age people become psychologically vulnerable and more dependent on others. And given the rising number of "empty nest" people and their vulnerability, the government has to take measures to provide them better psychological comfort, proper healthcare and legal aid.
After retirement, people tend to participate in fewer social activities, spending more time at home reading newspapers or watching television. "Empty nest" people, who are not taken proper care of by their children, are bound to feel lonely, and are usually unwilling to engage in recreational activities, which leads to psychological problems.
A Nanjing Normal University survey on the mental state of senior citizens in cities shows that more than half of the "empty nest" individuals suffer from mental problems to different degrees. Loneliness, anxiety and depression are the most common of these problems.
The Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged, which was amended in 2011, says "family members cannot mentally neglect and isolate the aged" and children are legally bound to visit their parents frequently. It also says that elderly parents have the right to sue their children for not visiting them.
The good intentions of the proposal have been applauded, but many people have doubted its feasibility. In fact, even before the law was amended, many senior citizens had moved court to demand emotional and spiritual, not material, support from their children.
The Internet and Chinese media are agog with the story of an "empty nest" senior citizen who invited his grandchildren to dinner, only to leave the dinner table when he saw them busy playing with their mobile phones without being interested in any conversation.
Filial piety requires grown-up children to take care of not only their parents, but also to respect their feelings, for example, by having more heart-to-heart conversations with them. Family love plays an important role in providing mental comfort for the elderly. No grown-up offspring should shirk the responsibility of visiting aged parents more often and making them feel wanted.
There is a lot more communities could do to help make senior citizens' life better. To begin with, they could recruit community volunteers, from warm-hearted university students to helpful and devoted middle-aged citizens who want to repay their debt to society by helping "empty nest" senior citizens.
Some companies have started offering services to help the elderly cope with loneliness. Domestic helpers visit senior citizens' home twice or three times a week, asking about their health, talking about their daily life and entertaining them with interesting anecdotes from the neighborhood.
Senior citizens, too, should make an effort to release their tension and prepare for a happy life in their twilight years. They should change their mentality and try to be less emotionally dependent on their children, cultivate hobbies, extend their social circle, and set new goals to make the rest of their life more interesting.
Hopefully, the Chongyang Festival, which falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, will see fewer "empty nest" senior citizens shedding tears longing for the company of their offspring on a day that requires children to pay respects to their elders, especially parents.