Lonely old man put himself up for adoption

Mr Han Zicheng was fit enough to ride his bike to the market to buy chestnuts, eggs and buns, but he knew that his health would one day fail him. His hope was that a person or family would adopt him, nourish him through old age and bury his body when
Mr Han Zicheng was fit enough to ride his bike to the market to buy chestnuts, eggs and buns, but he knew that his health would one day fail him. His hope was that a person or family would adopt him, nourish him through old age and bury his body when he died, he wrote in his note.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

He was one of millions of 'empty nest' elderly lacking support in China's demographic crisis

TIANJIN • Mr Han Zicheng survived the Japanese invasion, the Chinese civil war and the cultural revolution, but he knew he could not endure the sorrow of living alone.

On a chilly day last December, the 85-year-old Chinese grandfather gathered some scraps of white paper and wrote out a pitch in blue ink: "Looking for someone to adopt me."

He wrote: "Lonely old man in his 80s. Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness. I retired from a scientific research institute in Tianjin, with a monthly pension of 6,000 yuan (S$1,258) a month.

"I won't go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kind-hearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I'm dead."

He taped a copy to a bus shelter in his busy neighbourhood. Then he went home to wait.

Mr Han was desperate for company. He said his wife had died. His sons were out of touch. His neighbours had kids to raise and elderly parents of their own.

The last weeks of Mr Han's life are a mystery, an ending obscured by stubborn silence and missed calls. What is clear is that the system failed him - and will likely fail others.

He was fit enough to ride his bike to the market to buy chestnuts, eggs and buns, but he knew that his health would one day fail him. He also knew he was but one of tens of millions of Chinese growing old without enough support.

Improved living standards and the one-child policy have turned China's population pyramid upside down. Already, 15 per cent of Chinese are over 60. By 2040, it is projected to be nearly one in four.

It is a demographic crisis that threatens China's economy and the fabric of family life. Businesses must manage with fewer workers. A generation of single children care for ageing parents on their own. Millions of "empty nest" elderly - seniors who do not live with their spouses or children - have little protection.

Mr Han had been trying for years to get people to listen to him, stopping neighbours to tell them he was lonely, that he was scared of dying, that he did not want to die alone.

This time, a woman saw him taping a note to a store window, snapped a picture and posted it on social media with a plea: "I hope warm-hearted people can help."

A television crew from online site Pear Video came to tell the story of the lonely Tianjin grandpa.

Mr Han's phone started ringing. And through his last three months, it did not stop.

At first, Mr Han was hopeful. A local restaurant offered food. A journalist from Hebei province promised to visit. He struck up a telephone friendship with a 20-year-old law student in the south.

The problem, Mr Han told anyone who would listen, was that young people have abandoned the old model, but the government had yet to find a new system for senior care.

Professor Jiang Quanbao, an expert on demography at the Institute for Population and Development Studies at Xi'an Jiaotong University, said that the challenge is that China is both an ageing society and a developing country. China "got old before it got rich", he said.

Mr Han said he fell out with one son and that the other emigrated to Canada in 2003.

But when people who saw his story called, he often launched into tirades against the government or the food at the local seniors home, which he tried and hated.

As winter settled in, the calls became less frequent. Mr Han was once again consumed by fear that he would die in bed, alone.

The last weeks of Mr Han's life are a mystery, an ending obscured by stubborn silence and missed calls. What is clear is that the system failed him - and will likely fail others.

Mr Han spent his final days trying to connect. In February, he started making calls to a help line for seniors called Beijing Love Delivery Hotline. The line's founder Xu Kun founded the service to prevent suicide, particularly among seniors who live alone.

"Family and society find it hard to understand the grumpiness, the depression that comes with growing old," she said.

Mr Han would call the line a couple of times a week, venting to the staff about his loneliness and lamenting the state of China's seniors homes. He stopped calling in early March, Ms Xu said.

Mr Han also kept in touch with his law-student friend Jiang Jing, and told her a young military man was also in regular contact, and interested in adopting him.

Ms Jiang last chatted with Mr Han on March 13. On March 14, she missed a call from him. The next time she called, in early April, an unfamiliar voice answered: his son, she later learnt. He said his father died on March 17.

The neighbourhood committee that was supposed to keep an eye on residents was surprised by news of Mr Han's death. Five neighbours said they had noticed his absence in the hallway, but did not check on him.

Mr Han's son Han Chang flew in from Canada to handle his affairs.He said his father was lying, that the old man had three sons, not two, and that they took good care of him. His father had not been lonely, he insisted, just old. "This could happen anywhere," he said.

When Mr Han fell ill on March 17, he called an unknown number in his phone. The son would not say who - it could have been the military man, another prospective adopter, or someone else.

Mr Han's greatest fear was that he would die in his bed, that someone would find his bones. But when his time came, he had someone to call. He made it to the hospital.

When his heart gave out, he was not alone.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2018, with the headline 'Lonely old man put himself up for adoption'. Print Edition | Subscribe