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    Outliving Their Only Child, ‘Shidu’ Seniors Fear the Future

    With few institutional options and modest pensions, couples who’ve lost their only child worry about who will look after them in their old age.

    Every day after his morning fitness routine, 73-year-old Zhao finds an excuse to break away from his exercise group, then travels nearly 3 kilometers on foot to visit his son’s grave.

    The elderly Beijing resident, who asked to be identified only by his surname, says it was in 2014 that his then-39-year-old son passed away from leukemia. In the years since, Zhao and his wife, surnamed Hong, have been left raising their grandson, whose mother has been estranged since an earlier divorce.

    Zhao hides his cemetery trips from his family, too. “I’m worried about returning home late,” he says during one visit, gently stroking an image of his son on the gravestone. “My wife is very sensitive. She would be mad at me for visiting my son alone. But if I brought her here, she wouldn’t be able to calm down for several days afterward.”

    The tragedy remains a painful topic for the family of three, who have largely kept it concealed from their social circles so as not to engender pity or gossip among friends and co-workers. Even in their own home, they avoid speaking of the man or his absence. Zhao says he is always careful to mind his words but that he still makes mistakes. Sometimes, he accidentally calls his now-16-year-old grandchild by his son’s name, setting off the usually reserved boy. An aging couple, Zhao and Hong say they feel exhausted by raising the teenager, who has become increasingly withdrawn over the years.

    But more concerning for the elderly pair is the uncertainty of their future. “I don’t know if I can count on my grandson to take care of us when we become seriously ill or very old,” Zhao says. “I will be 80 when he graduates [from university]. And his father is not around to look after the three of us, so I feel hopeless.”

    In line with restrictions implemented by China in 1978 to control the birth rate, Zhao’s son was the only child he and his wife ever had. Although the country’s Population and Family Planning Law was revised in 2016 to allow two children per couple, Zhao and Hong say they are now too old to take advantage of the new policy. They are a shidu family — a term for any couple who have lost their only child and cannot have a second due to age or physical limitations. According to the latest census data from 2010, China has around 660,000 such families.

    “I advised my husband to divorce me and marry someone younger to have another child,” says 64-year-old Li, another Beijing resident who asked to be identified only by her surname. “I cannot get pregnant again, but I could help raise their child,” she explains with a wry laugh.

    In 2009, Li’s only son died of a heart attack at the age of 28. She says it took her a long time to accept his death, shutting herself away in her home for five years. Now, she says she still relies on her husband’s emotional support just to make it through the day.

    “I live for my husband now,” Li says, smiling. With a deceased son and a similarly aged spouse, Li says she has worried that she may die alone in her home, with no loved ones to check in on her or arrange her funeral. She has since signed up to have her body used for medical research after she passes away: “At least then you can be sure that someone will come to collect your dead body, [so you will] not rot away alone in your home.”

    Traditionally, the expectation in China has been for aging parents to be looked after by their adult children. And although the central government has attempted to provide additional safety nets for its elderly, as with the introduction of pension funds in the 1990s, the country’s laws, facilities, and social security programs do not meet all the needs of its rapidly graying population. As such, most elderly Chinese still end up living together with their sons or daughters — the cheapest and most convenient option for many.

    But without children to provide care, aging shidu couples are often forced to turn to the country’s nursing homes, only to find an overburdened system that may be unable to accommodate them. By the end of September 2017, China had 230 million people aged 60 or over but only about 144,000 nursing homes — or roughly one facility for every 1,600 seniors — according to a report released earlier this year by state-run Xinhua News Agency. The State Council, China’s cabinet, published a paper in March of last year showing that the country’s 60-plus population could expand to 255 million by 2020, further increasing the strain on retirement centers.

    Affordability is another issue. In Beijing, where Zhao, Hong, and Li live, the average monthly fee for nursing home care was 6,254 yuan ($900) in 2016, according to an analysis last year by, a platform focusing on elder care in China. Meanwhile, a report this year from the Beijing Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau put the average monthly payout for the capital’s pensioners at just 3,959 yuan.

    With no children to support them and scant resources dedicated to their care, Zhao and Hong say that, like the hundreds of thousands of other shidu families, they feel anxious about falling ill or dying.

    “I hope I can die quickly if I become sick someday,” Hong says decisively. “That way, I won’t need to ask anyone for help.”

    Editor: Layne Flower.

    (Header image: A 73-year-old man surnamed Zhao touches the tombstone of his late son in Beijing, September 2018. Aha Video for Sixth Tone)