FUSHENG, China — As the daughter-in-law rolls open the rusted doors to her garage, light spills onto a small figure on a straw mattress. A curious face peers out.
It’s the face of Kuang Shiying’s 94-year-old mother-in-law — better known as the little old lady who sued her own children for not taking care of her.
The drama playing out inside this house reflects a wider and increasingly urgent dilemma. The world’s population is aging fast, due to longer life spans and lower birth rates, and there will soon be more old people than young for the first time in history. This has left families and governments struggling to decide: Who is responsible for the care of the elderly?
A few countries, such as India, Singapore, France and Ukraine, now require adult children to financially support their parents. Twenty-nine U.S. states have similar laws, though they are rarely enforced because the government provides aid.
In China, where family loyalty is a cornerstone of society, more than 1,000 parents have sued their children for financial support over the last 15 years. But in December, the government went further, amending its elder care law to require that children also support their parents emotionally. Children who don’t visit their parents can be sued — by mom and dad.
The law pits the expectations of society against the complexities of family, and begs the question: How do you legislate love?
Zhang Zefang, with her thin frame and soft smile, hardly looks like the vindictive matriarch many assume she must be.
She is one of about 3,800 people in the village of Fusheng in southwest China, where the pace is slow and the atmosphere placid.
But inside Kuang and Zhang’s home, there is war.
Resentment hangs in the air, acrid and sharp like the stench from the urine-filled bucket next to Zhang’s bed. This is the epicenter of a family feud that erupted amid accusations of lying, of ungratefulness, of abuse and neglect and broken promises.
“I never thought about whether my kids would take care of me when I was old,” Zhang says. “I just focused on taking care of them.”
Inside her room, there is no heat, no window to the outside world.
From the shadows, she begins to speak.
It used to be in China that the idea of filial piety, or honoring your parents, was instilled from birth. A Chinese proverb calls filial piety “the first among 100 virtues,” and the ancient philosopher Confucius credited it as the bedrock of social harmony. As a 2008 bulletin from the U.S. aging advocacy group AARP said: “For thousands of years, filial piety was China’s Medicare, Social Security and long-term care, all woven into a single family virtue.”
This is the world Zhang was born into, on Aug. 15, 1919.
She married at 14, but her husband died of dysentery. Her second husband was too poor to support her, so they moved in with his parents.
That’s when her nightmare truly began.
“She’s not making sense!” Kuang snaps.
Zhang barely acknowledges her daughter-in-law’s insult. In fact, she barely acknowledges her at all.
Kuang hovers over her mother-in-law, interjecting constant critiques: Zhang is messing up the story, Zhang cannot remember a detail, even if she is in the midst of delivering it.
Zhang tries to remember her age when her first husband died….24? Or 21?
“Don’t make up nonsense!” Kuang says, voice rising. “It was 22! IT WAS 22!”
Zhang is crying.
Her father-in-law, she says, was a gambling addict with a violent temper. Yet Zhang never considered leaving — that would have made her a social outcast.
Three decades later, her husband died, leaving her at the mercy of her offspring. But the world had changed.
Zhang murmurs that she wants to say something, but is afraid to talk in front of her daughter-in-law. Kuang steps outside and Zhang pleads: “Don’t let her know that I told you this…”
Her family locks her in this room all day. She dares not scream for help for fear she will be beaten.
She pinches her cheek hard, slaps a visitor’s arm. That’s what they do to me, she says.
Her bones ache. Her feet ache. The stench from the toilet bucket sickens her.
All she wants is to go to a nursing home, she says. But the few nursing homes in China supply only 22 beds for every 1,000 seniors, and most families can’t afford them.
Zhang has no money. She says her children took it all.
She presses a filthy rag to her wet eyes.
“I’m too old to go through this.”
This village lies within the district of Changshou, which means “long life.” But living long has transformed from a dream achieved by few into a nightmare endured by many.
China is projected to have 636 million people over age 50 — nearly 49 percent of the population — by 2050, up from 25 percent of the population in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So who will care for them?
Across the world, rapidly increasing life spans have left many adults scrambling to look after their parents, their children and themselves. In China, one-child urban policies over three decades have led to even fewer working youngsters. And a lack of jobs means rural youth must leave their parents to find work in distant cities.
The result is an emotional and generational tug-of-war.
Frustration is etched into every line of Kuang’s face. Zhang’s accusations, she says, are lies.
Kuang has become the true family matriarch. Ask to speak to her husband, and she’ll insist she knows best, so just ask her. It’s not an offer — it’s an order.
But it is also Kuang who looks after her mother-in-law, because in China, women shoulder most of the responsibility of elder care.
Her mother-in-law is no victim, Kuang says. If anyone is suffering, she says, it is everyone in the family who has thanklessly cared for Zhang, even as their own desperation grows.
When Zhang claims the lawsuit was her sons’ idea, her daughter-in-law explodes.
“She doesn’t know the whole story!” Kuang barks. “Let me tell you what really happened…”
China is going grey faster than it is growing rich, and aid for the elderly is not keeping pace. A new rural pension scheme does not cover everyone. Monthly payments are meager, and health care is inadequate.
Where the government falls short, the kids are left to solve the problems — except they often can’t, and sometimes won’t.
Zhang’s children have all come up with reasons why they can’t care for her.
The oldest son, Zhou Mingde, only receives $13 a month from his pension and must pay for his paraplegic wife’s medicine. He is still farming at 71 because he cannot afford to stop.
The middle son, Zhou Yinxi, argues that at 68, he is broke, and won’t receive his pension for two years.
The youngest son, Gangming, says he is 56 and too poor to handle the care alone. All he and his wife, Kuang, have is a $16 monthly pension, two pigs and a cow.
And the daughter, Zhou Yunhua, says she lives too far away.
No one knew what to do. So they went to the village court.
After stories of elder abuse persisted, China amended its elder care law late last year to require that adult children visit and emotionally support their parents.
Court officials told Zhang she could sue her children. Then the court could force them all to care for her equally.
Suddenly, everyone in the village knew her story.
The court ordered Mingde, Gangming and their sister to take turns caring for their mother, and Yinxi to pay her $10 per month.
So far, Yinxi has paid nothing.
And so Zhang returned to Kuang’s garage.
“I won’t get any appreciation for taking care of her,” an exhausted Kuang says. “I also can’t abandon her.”
Kuang wants to move in with her own daughter when her mother-in-law dies: “I tell my children, ‘If you can take care of me like I have taken care of your grandmother, then that is enough.'”
She is, she says, setting the example.
EPILOGUE: Zhang Zefang now temporarily lives with her eldest son, Mingde, as the court ordered.
Her new home is crowded with clutter and complaints. Mingde frets about the cost of medical care. A frustrated Yinxi cries. Zhang stares vacantly at the ground as she talks.
“I just wish I could die.”