China's Age Bank

China's senior care...
You would love to meet Mrs. Wang Binru. She's fit and spry at 92 years of age, she loves to dance and gets up every morning to do her tai chi.

And she is lucky. Very lucky.

A widow with no children, she happens to live in a neighborhood in this city that developed what they called the Age Bank so people like Mrs. Wang get the help and care they need.

It's simple – volunteers work with the very elderly, and keep track of their hours in a little red book. Someday, when they get old, they can "withdraw" the hours and get care for themselves from the next generation of volunteers.

It was thought up by community organizer Feng Kexiong, who saw two interesting things:

"There were a lot of retirees in this neighborhood that weren't that busy," he said, "while the very elderly needed help."

Thus was born the Age Bank, which really embodies the best of the Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would someday have them do unto you."

It comes because times are changing in China. Once, the elderly were cared for by the younger members of the family. It is still not uncommon for three or four generations to live together and care for each other.

But with a booming economy, young people are moving away for jobs and opportunity, and often leaving their elderly parents or grandparents behind.

And China has few nursing homes and no real safety net for the elderly. That's what the family did.

In a sense, the Age Bank is a lot like a family. Helpers come to Mrs. Wang's two room "home" and clean it top to bottom, maybe run to the bank and get money from her account, or just take the time to chat. One nice days, they go for walks or shop at the local market.

"They treat me like I'm their mother," she told us with a big smile. "They cook meals, buy groceries and run errands."

One of the helpers is Cai Dezhen, who is a young 67. She works with Mrs. Wang and the two are now fast friends. And Mrs. Cai knows the time will come when her hard work – and donated hours – will pay off.

"I've been depositing time in the bank, so one day when I need it people will help me," she explained.

At the moment, the Age Bank serves about 300 elderly. Some are up and about like Mrs. Wang, others more restricted in what they can do.

But the bottom line is that people are being cared for in the tiny apartments where some have lived for decades, not forced into a nursing home. It is one of the hardest parts of aging…having to leave you own home…and with the Age Bank many elderly may never have to move.

It's also something about China – where respect for the elderly is still important, where older people are honored for the wisdom only age brings, and there is a pride in caring for the elderly.

In some societies, the elderly are ignored, hidden away, sometimes abandoned by their families.

Lucky for Mrs. Wang that she lives in China, surrounded by people who think of her not only as an old person who needs a bit of help…but because she is old, they honor and care for her as a treasure.

And of course, the helpers from the Age Bank will also find themselves becoming a part of her favorite activity…a dance on the sidewalk that leaves everyone laughing.
By Barry Petersen