BEIJING — Li Bo Ying prizes her independent lifestyle.
For decades, the 85-year-old has lived in a fifth-floor walk-up — alone, but near friends and comfortable routines.
Li has no desire to move in with one of her children, saying that would disrupt both her life and theirs.
“I enjoy my own freedom,” she said through an interpreter.
But she also needs help taking care of her apartment. So her children have hired a part-time caregiver from a company that is a franchise of Omaha-based Right at Home.
Monday, the Chinese franchise of Right at Home announced here that it is expanding to four other cities as part of a growth plan that could result in hundreds of offices over the next two decades.
As the operation in China grows, it also could boost employment at the Right at Home headquarters in Omaha. That office at 6464 Center St., now with 44 employees, has grown by seven since May 2011.
Right at Home is targeting a demographic trend that some consider to be China's biggest challenge. China's population is rapidly aging, with the percentage of residents 65 or older expected to triple between 2000 and 2050.
“That's the big problem for China,” said Shuanglin Lin, an adjunct economics professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who heads the China Center for Public Finance at Peking University.
Lin said many countries, including the United States, face challenges as they deal with high percentages of elderly people. Aging populations have major ramifications for the labor market, government budgets and health care spending, among other things.
But Lin said China's problems are more severe than most, partly because the country's demographic shift is so dramatic.
In addition, China's recent economic boom hasn't made the country affluent enough to deal effectively with its aging population, said former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, who recently headed the Asia Foundation.
“There's a saying that China will become old before it becomes rich,” Bereuter said.
China's problems are compounded by its government population policies and the country's urbanization and industrialization trends.
China has veered from aggressively promoting large families in the 1950s and 1960s to its restrictive one-child policy adopted in 1979 to stem population growth. Despite some loosening of the policy in recent years, it remains in effect.
The result: An adult of the one-child generation may find himself responsible for the care of two parents and even grandparents.
It's traditional for Chinese sons to take older parents into their homes, with family members caring for them as they age, but that isn't always possible in the modern economy because of job demands.
Meanwhile, China does not have as many retirement homes as more developed countries.
That's where Right at Home comes in. Its Chinese franchise, which opened in June 2011, provides in-home services ranging from companionship to skilled nursing.
Li Bo Ying didn't like it at first. The company kept sending different people to help her with housekeeping, and it was nerve-wracking to teach each new person how she wanted things done.
“It made me feel very tired,” Li said.
But after she complained to the company, Right at Home began to send the same person — Muli Hua — every week.
“She knows exactly what I want,” Li said.
She had some other advice, too. For example, she pointed out that some workers were sloppy about leaving water on the floor and they should be more careful to avoid a slipping hazard, she said.
The Beijing operation was started by Yao Li, who runs a property management company and had founded a string of nonprofit trade schools for lower-income children of migrant workers.
Yao said she had identified a need for senior services in China and, after researching the options, she contacted Right at Home.
The company founded in 1995 has grown to more than 220 local franchise offices across 41 states, the United Kingdom, Brazil and China.
A Right at Home competitor, Omaha-based Home Instead, is interested in the China market but has not formed a franchise there yet, company officials said. Home Instead has 900 franchise offices in 16 countries.
Initially, Right at Home was cool to a franchise in China, feeling that the market might not be ready. But Yao persisted, and company chairman Allen Hager flew to China in late 2010 to meet with her.
Monday's event to announce the expansion was an elaborately staged production in the China World Hotel that drew at least 250 people, including numerous members of the Chinese news media. The room was lined with about 40 information panels describing the company's services and the nation's demographic challenges.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman attended, as did Dou Yupei, vice minister in China's Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Dou praised Right at Home for offering quality services and said he valued the professionalism offered by market-oriented U.S. businesses. He also said China is committed to serving its elderly citizens and described the nation's goals for adding nursing beds.
Right at Home clients tend to be higher income, although the company says many people opt for a limited number of hours each week, something that isn't necessarily out of reach for the growing middle class. Yao Li said it's also possible that government subsidies or insurance may be available in the future to help cover costs.
The China operation has been adapted somewhat to meet local needs. For example, caregivers in China often will accompany senior citizens to the local hospital to help them navigate the complicated process of making appointments, doing paperwork and taking tests.
And with some caregivers hired from low-income backgrounds, training has sometimes included teaching workers how to use a washing machine or a full kitchen, rather than a single cook pot.
Clients like Li Bo Ying have high standards. The daughter of a well-to-do Shanghai family, she was accustomed to having several maids when growing up.
She told how she had hidden her wedding photos in the trash during China's Cultural Revolution, fearing they would identify her as having an affluent background and make her a target for persecution.
Now, of course, the hand-colored photos from 1951 are displayed proudly on her wall.
Her husband, who worked for a government agency that coordinated all the clothes manufactured for the citizens, died in 1990, but she still lives in the housing complex built for workers of that agency.
Every morning, Li descends five flights of stairs to go to a nearby park for stretching exercises, then climbs them when she returns.
She's happy for her good health, and enjoys playing mahjong or shopping with three friends who live in the complex. She's the youngest of the four.
Li said her three professional children have nicer homes, but she doesn't want to move. They can visit her instead.
“I don't want to be influenced,” she said. “I have my own routine.”
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