Suicide among Chinese elderly on the rise

Suicide among the elderly has soared in recent years, especially in rural areas, prompting experts to call for improved social welfare and medical systems to aid senior citizens.

"Our society is in the midst of a transformation, turning into an aged society. The system for senior citizens is not complete, which has a significant impact on the later life of residents," Dang Junwu, deputy director of the China Research Center on Aging, said at a news conference when the country's first Blue Book of Aging was released on Wednesday.

People aged 65 or older in China are more likely to commit suicide than any other age group, and the rate has been climbing in recent years, according to the book.

"The reasons for elderly suicides are complicated. The major reasons include the loss of spouse, a debilitating and terminal illness and decreased socialization and social support," said Qu Jiayao, a research assistant from the National Committee on Aging.

More than 185,000 people aged 55 or older committed suicide in China in 2007, according to the Ministry of Health. Most of them lived in the countryside.

The alarming statistic has made the issue of later-life suicide a major public health priority, especially because the elderly are the fastest growing segment of the population in China.

In 2013, China will have 200 million people aged 65 or older, 14.8 per cent of the population, the blue book said. The country is expected to be an aged society by 2026 or 2027, according to the Sixth National Census.

China has taken more measures to cope with aging in recent years, including allocating more funds for the medical welfare system.

"Yet 77 per cent of the funds went to urban residents," said Dang, deputy director of the research centre. "The imbalance in medical welfare between urban and rural areas put elderly residents in villages at greater risk of attempting suicide."

A resident of Wuhan, Hubei province, named Liu said two men in their 80s he knew had committed suicide after being ill for many years.

"They didn't have the money to get treatment for their illness, making them desperate," he said. "Their children also went out to work, leaving them alone at home."

Dang said elderly people become more fragile when they live alone, yet rural elderly residents are at serious risk of becoming isolated.

Lin Xue, a volunteer for an elderly services hotline, noticed these trends over her two years working for the service.

The 24-hour hotline, which was opened in 2006 in Beijing, has received 18,500 calls from elderly people over the past year. "But most of them were from urban residents, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai," said Lin.

The newly amended Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Seniors stated that efforts focused on providing emotional support for the elderly should be strengthened.

"We have the guideline now, but the more important part is to set up detailed measures and strong implementation," said Dang, "We have a long way to go in this direction."

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