Studies of population aging and elderly well-being are often approached from a macro-economic perspective that evaluates national capacity to meet age-based healthcare and services need. This paper is based on the premise that to evaluate better the ability of government and families to fulfill the material needs of a growing elderly population, a clear and holistic understanding of those needs is necessary. Because later-life needs and expectations are situated within the context of complex social conditions and individual lives, research from the “ground-level” is needed to complement those macro-level studies of population aging and elderly well-being. This paper explores the experiences of growing old in China from the perspective of elders living in a southwestern rural Fujian community. Evidence from focus groups, a household survey, and in-depth interviews shows that these elders assess their present conditions and future needs in light of their biographies, many of which include long-term experiences of physical and economic hardship. Respondents’ desires for current and future material support are rudimentary and consist mainly of food and basic clothing. Need for companionship is often met through peer socialization or, when junior family members are away, through telephone communication. However, social comparison is prevalent and elders whose families have not “kept up” by building a large new homes or acquiring other conspicuous household items may experience shame and psychological distress. Comparison of village-level resources also produces dissatisfaction. This paper argues that (cohort-based) biographical experience and material expectations and (period-related) levels of inequality deserve further attention alongside (age-focused) studies of elderly well-being amidst population aging. These implications are relevant not only for generating theories of elderly well-being in rural China, but for other settings in which population aging is accompanied by rapid social change and inequalities.
Country of focus: China.