U.S. Assisted Living Model To Be Tried In China

fromKUOW

Two Seattle-based companies plan to open the first American-operated senior facility in China. Chinese families used to rely on children and grandchildren to care for aging parents, but people are working long hours, and options for senior care are limited.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some investors are looking to China for opportunity, including a Seattle-based venture that will offer long-term senior care. It's opening an assisted-living facility in Shanghai next year, the first foreign investor to do so. Ruby de Luna of member station KUOW in Seattle has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF BINGO BASKET TURNING)

JEAN: Okay, 0-65.

RUBY DE LUNA, BYLINE: At this senior housing near Seattle, there's usually some kind of evening activity for residents. Tonight, it's Bingo, and folks are playing for candy. The big prize: stuffed animals.

JEAN: Who has Bingo?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bingo.

JEAN: Okay, that's one Bingo. We need two more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

LUNA: This very American model for assisted living is being translated for Shanghai. The new venture is called Cascade Healthcare, a partnership of two Seattle companies: Columbia Pacific and Emeritus Corporation. The concept is American, but the specifics will be customized to China. So instead of Bingo, residents will play Mahjong.

SERENA XIE: We will not serve Western-style food. It will be total Chinese. And also, we will incorporate Chinese medicine into our program.

LUNA: That's Serena Xie, managing director of Cascade Healthcare. Xie has been computing between Seattle and Shanghai to oversee the project. The facility that's opening next spring will house up to 100 residents. Xie say it'll provide skilled nursing for seniors who require more medical care and help with daily living.

XIE: Such as how they will be bathed. How the medications should be given to them. All these will be to the U.S. standards, which I think in China, at the moment, the facility that run by the government, they probably still need to do a better job.

LUNA: Xie says there's a big demand for senior housing in China, where the wait could take as long as two years for an open bed. It's a struggle that Xie knows firsthand. Her family couldn't find a place that specialized in dementia care for her grandmother, so her mother and the rest of her family took care of her. Xie says the experience underscores the dearth of eldercare options in China, and it's going to get worse as the number of seniors is rapidly rising.

It used to be that children took care of their elderly parents. But China's one-child policy means there are fewer young people to take that on. And Xie says China's economic growth is creating a new reality for families.

XIE: These days, people are so busy and working, and they've committing so much time to their work and taking care of their family, that including their children, and they just don't have as much time to care for their parents.

KAREN EGGLESTON: Definitely, the demand is there in terms of the number of people that are elderly and in need of care. But demand has another aspect, which is ability and willingness to pay.

LUNA: Karen Eggleston is a health economist and director of the Asia Health Program at Stanford University. She says other Asian countries, like Japan and South Korea, have grappled with these issues. But this is new for China, so there is a burgeoning market for what she calls grey tech, or services that cater to seniors and the elderly.

EGGLESTON: One of the main challenges will be figuring how to deliver quality, reliable senior care. If they want to get any large share of the market, they'll have to learn how to deliver it at a lower price point.

LUNA: Eggleston says American companies might also provide alternatives that may be more affordable than residential services, like in-home care or programs like adult day centers. And before Cascade Healthcare or any American business can carve a niche in the Chinese market, they'll have to help consumers understand what they're offering, since there's no tradition of long-term senior care facilities in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF BINGO BASKET TURNING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Still four corners?

JEAN: Still four corners. We need one more.

LUNA: Back at the senior housing near Seattle, a couple of residents are grousing. They're one number away from Bingo. In the game, whoever gets the right pattern first wins. It's similar in senior care. It takes the right alignment of real estate, hospitality, health care and culture to make a business successful, whether it's in the U.S. or in China. For NPR News, I'm Ruby de Luna, in Seattle.

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