THE SUNDAY STORY For a country that has relied on a youthful labour force to drive growth over the past three decades, a rapidly aging population presents both short-term and long-term challenges

At the end of 2011, there were 123 million Chinese who were above the age of 65.

By 2050, the Chinese government estimates, that number will rise to 323 million. One in every four Chinese will then be 65-plus.

For a country that has relied on a youthful labour force to drive growth over the past three decades, a rapidly aging population presents both short-term and long-term challenges, Chinese demographers say.

The government has embarked on a three-step programme to tackle what social scientists have described as a “grave” aging crisis. This involves short-term measures, such as boosting investment in health care for the elderly, and shoring up the pension system. Then, there are more complicated long-term policy changes that are still mired in debates, including loosening up the controversial “one-child policy” and transforming a labour-driven economy.

At the heart of China’s aging challenge is what social scientists have neatly summed up as the “421 problem.” A legacy of family planning rules put in place in the 1970s, the number refers to the burdens faced by the current generation of one-child Chinese families, where one grandchild is tasked with the welfare of two parents and four grandparents.

Wang Xiaoyan, who heads the NGO Community Alliance, says the problem has led to a growing deficit in care for the aged. Surveys carried out by her NGO have found an alarming shortage of beds in homes that care for the elderly. Ms. Wang estimates a shortage of more than five million beds. This is twice the current supply of 2.5 million.

As traditional notions of filial piety erode, Ms. Wang and others have expressed concern at growing neglect of the elderly, prompting new legislation and campaigns aimed to increase sensitivity.

This year, the government added an amendment to the well-intentioned, but largely ineffectual, Law on Protection of Rights and Interests of the Aged. It was passed in 1997 but has been enforced rarely. The amendment allows senior citizens who suffer from any disability to choose a guardian from her or his relatives, who will be responsible for care.

To encourage people to care for older family members, the government has come out with an updated version of 24 Stories of Filial Piety, a Yuan Dynasty period work that reflects traditional Confucian notions of piety.

It recounts stories of sacrifice by children, such as the eight-year-old who gives up his body to spare his parents from mosquito bites. Adapting them for modern times, the new text calls upon children to spend holidays with their parents and arrange hospital visits: simple steps that could go a long way.