China's ageing populace gives birth to growing market

CHINA - With the world's largest aged population, China has attracted more and more overseas companies selling products and services for the elderly.

Martin Cook, chairman of Easibathe, a British company selling barrier-free products for the elderly and disabled, showcased his products at the first China International Senior Services Expo in Shanghai on Friday.

"It (China) is a massive, massive market," Cook said.

In the 1990s, Cook outsourced his manufacturing to China and imported the products into Europe. However, in April, he set up an office in Shanghai that will concentrate on selling products in China.

Cook said the most popular product his company sells in China is a plastic ramp system made in Denmark, which costs 300 yuan ($47.4) for each set.

Cook said he is looking for 20 to 25 Chinese dealers in the long run. Currently, he has two.

Terada Daisuke, president of Nichii Carenet Co, a leading senior service provider in Japan, said his group set up a company in Shanghai in February.

"We will share Japanese professional nursing skills in China by providing services including the design and operation of nursing homes," he said.

More than 185 million Chinese were 60 or older by the end of 2011, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

"The government alone can never meet the needs of the rapidly aging population. The increase in the elderly population has helped to create new business opportunities," said Lu Ying, director of the social welfare and charities division of the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Lu estimated that old-age support services have a potential market value of more than 450 billion yuan.

The market for home-care is still immature in China, because people are not willing to pay for services that they don't fully understand.

"The model of healthcare in China over the years has been to go to big hospitals. But in New Zealand, we try to keep the old away from hospitals and safe at home," said Mark Leggett, vice-president of Healthcare New Zealand Ltd.

In New Zealand, the average hospital stay is about 10 to 20 days for an elderly person annually, but in China, the average is about 40 days, Leggett said.

It costs an elderly Chinese patient nearly 40,000 yuan to spend that much time in the hospital, he said.

The Chinese government has decided that most of its elderly population should grow old at home and have sufficient care services.

The municipal civil affairs authority of Beijing has invested in a coupon system for all residents aged above 80.

Such residents get coupons worth 100 yuan a month, which subsidizes the purchase of daily necessities or services including haircutting and hiring a part-time domestic helper.

Li Hongbing, deputy head of the Beijing municipal bureau of civil affairs, said the city government has distributed coupons worth 940 million yuan.

"This coupon system has helped to nurture the senior service market and increased our senior citizens' sense of well-being," Li said.

It "is a very expensive thing to do, because you give money to people who maybe don't need it," said Leggett.

Given the varying economic conditions of Chinese elderly people, Leggett suggested that the government should work to target people who really need the services.

"China is a very young market (in terms of home care services for the old) and the service delivery pattern in China is different, so we will try to figure out where we are going to fit in," said Leggett.