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Renovation of rural areas requires care to support elderly

WANG XIAOYI | 2020-09-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

An elderly couple in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province Photo: Xu Kai/ CHINA DAILY
Rural planning should take into account the needs of the elderly, and enable them to enjoy a more social, economic and healthy life.
As a result of youth rural-urban migration and a longer life expectancy for rural residents, the proportion of older people living in the countryside is rising, where the rural population is aging even faster than in cities. However, the elderly find it hard to have their voice heard or their wishes fulfilled as they are neither the main labor force of the family nor the decision-makers for village affairs. Thankfully, the government has placed great emphasis on the improvement of rural living conditions, which has a direct effect on the life quality and physical and psychological health of senior residents. The wellbeing of the elderly is highly relevant to the country’s goal of rural revitalization. First and foremost, we need to find out what the elderly truly need.
Status quo
The history of developed economies tells us that the outflow of rural youth is inevitable, and measures to discourage this trend have mostly been in vain. What’s more, the process of youth rural-urban migration is even gaining speed. As more young people move into cities, the country life will become increasingly less appealing to those left behind, which usually leads to more urban migration. Naturally, the demographic group which remains are seniors. 
Apart from accommodating the native elderly, villages with a sound natural environment have also attracted some urban retirees. Consequently, policy mechanisms that prioritize the demands of the elderly are required to improve the local living conditions. 
We need to rethink what the rural elderly need help with the most. Because of the so-called “empty nest phenomenon,” instead of living with their family members like in the old days, when their demands could be met by their relatives, more retirees have now started to live by themselves. Some are forced to live a solitary life when their children are away; some others choose this lifestyle in preference to their old living environment, or simply to avoid family conflicts. These old people have formed a unique group in society, and their demands for a better living environment have become loud and clear.
Social need & living habits
The primary demand for an old person is their social need, thus a sound living environment should be able to strongly connect the elderly with others. Previously, an entire family used to live together, and the elderly could enjoy the company of their family members, especially their grandchildren. It was less of a necessity to associate with people outside their families. Now, more elderly people have started to live by themselves, they find friendship essential for the wellbeing of their mental health. 
With a lot of time to kill but very few available options for recreation, some old people in the rural areas can only find solace in a chat with other old people while sunbathing. But chit-chatting is hardly enough. Lately, many handicraft training programs have been held in some local communities. The programs function as a channel for the elderly to find friendship. For the senior participants of these programs, it is not so important to acquire a certain technique or to profit from the skills. The only thing that matters to them is the opportunity to spend time with others. 
Encouraging interactions among old people can greatly improve their life quality. This has proven to be working in some rural districts. For instance, some districts encourage younger retirees to visit the older retirees. Some other districts have set up clubs for the aged and village-level mutual funds that are run by the clubs. The funds offer supportive loans for the villagers in need with pensions collected from club members. The fund helps not only ease the financial burden of some villagers, but also  to increase the income of the elderly while functioning as a social club. 
However, while some places are gaining valuable experience, others have not paid much attention to the social need of the elderly, nor have some local governments left enough public space for the needs of the senior population. The elderly should be able to socialize in many ways, including chatting, playing games, sunbathing, learning new knowledge, health practices and certain types of physical labor. We need to take this into consideration when transforming the villages by ensuring that all public space also serves the social needs of the senior population.
It is also important to bear in mind that it may take longer for some senior farmers to get used to the transformation. The renovation of the rural living environment benefits all villagers, especially the elderly, in that the locals find it easier now to access safe drinking water, fresh air, toilets and waste disposal facilities. However, we also need to see the potential damages that over-transformation of the environment may have on the elderly. Speedy transformation of the environment and blind imitation of big cities may exert a heavy toll on the local environment as well as on the elderly’s lifestyle. 
An ecologically livable village is ideal for the old age. However, a senior who is used to their old lifestyle may find it difficult to adjust to a new one. In this case, drastic transformations of the local environment may cause discomfort for the elderly. For example, one of the main tasks of rural transformation is to distance people’s living space from livestock by moving the livestock to a farm. This gesture is able to improve the local environment, prevent the spread of diseases and improve old people’s health. However, for those who have been raising beasts and birds in their courtyard throughout their entire life, a complete ban on private livestock breeding may increase their living expenses and alter their daily routine. 
Down-to-earth transformation 
The transformation of rural living conditions must be practical and helpful. Measures should be adjusted to the local conditions and not simply copy-and-pasted from cities. Villages are naturally appealing to the elderly, and that’s why some rural seniors prefer not to spend their old age in the city whereas some urban elderly long to move to the countryside. During revitalization, we need to keep what’s most valuable to the villages. 
For example, most rural elderly are not used to living in tall buildings. For one thing, most rural buildings are not equipped with elevators. For another, the new and identical apartment buildings may make villagers feel as if they are living in the cities. In addition, living in closed doors inside tall buildings also cuts the strings between farmers and the earth, on top of making it harder for them to hang out with their friends. 
Farmers in traditional villages hardly ever retire, though they may reduce their labor intensity as they get older. This lifestyle not only is good for their health but also gives them a sense of meaning. Therefore, when the countryside blindly copies the city, the elderly may become idle, which may be worse for their health. 
During rural revitalization, some investors and architects have conducted large-scale transformation in the villages, which may cost the countryside more than is desirable. To make things worse, some projects may force villages to be subordinate to the surrounding cities and begin to serve more tourists and workers from outside the village, which may directly worsen living conditions for the elderly. 
To sum up, village planning and renovation should take into account what matters most for the elderly, so that their hometown can become more livable. 
The author is from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


edited by WENG RONG