Monday, May 29, 2017, 11:52 AM CST – China

Society

Nursing Home Fire

AN INEVITABLE TRAGEDY

The blaze that claimed 38 lives in Lushan reflects inadequate care for the aging population

The flames and heavy smoke at the Kangleyuan Nursing Home in Lushan County, Henan Province, May 25 Photo by cfp

A relative of a Kangleyuan resident prepares to take a survivor home after the deadly fire that claimed 38 lives Photo by IC

A former Kangleyuan resident who survived the fire now lives in her daughter’s home Photo by CFP

Tu Xiaohong clearly remembered that it was 8:05 PM on May 25, 2015 when she arrived at the Kangleyuan Nursing Home, the biggest senior care home in Lushan County, Henan Province. En route, Tu was praying that her sister, one of the facility’s residents, was safe and sound. But when she arrived, her legs buckled at the sight of the blazing buildings and heavy smoke.

When Tu arrived, the facility had been ablaze for half an hour. Tu was one of the first relatives on the scene – only one fire truck was there, with several firefighters attempting to bring the fire under control with high-pressure jets of water. Tu tried to rush into the facility to save her sister Tu Xinli, but was restrained from doing so.

By around 11 PM, the fire was extinguished. Rescuers began to search through the charred remains of the nursing home’s bungalows for any survivors. Many of the residences were mere piles of smoldering rubble and warped steel bed frames.

Altogether, the authorities said that 38 people, including Tu’s sister, lost their lives in the conflagration. Two more were seriously injured, and another two suffered minor injuries. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation.

In Limbo

It was nearly midnight when Li Yun arrived at the smoking ruin where, two months prior, she and her brothers had brought their mother, Liu Yufang, 69. Liu had lived alone after her husband passed away, but a cerebral infarction in 2014 left her bedridden, and her children, all of whom work outside their hometown, were unable to provide her with full-time care.

Liu’s sons were preparing to accommodate their mother that winter at one of their own homes in Lushan, once they returned from their jobs as migrant workers. Family members told the media that Liu was only being housed in Kangleyuan as a temporary measure. Liu’s family were among several who came forward with complaints about the facility, accusing administrators of neglect.

Lushan was one of Henan Province’s 31 listed “national poverty counties.” A growing number of local young people are choosing to seek better job opportunities outside county borders, with some villages reporting that three-fourths of their young people have landed urban jobs, leaving seniors alone at home. Official statistics published in 2000 showed that 8.4 percent of registered residents in Henan were working outside the province, a figure that shot to 20 percent in 2013.

47-year-old Tu Xinli had served as a quality control inspector at a military plant until 2006 when her work unit went bankrupt. She earned a living by working several part-time jobs to support her family, but, like Liu Yufang, was paralyzed by a cerebral infarction last year.

Tu’s husband, He Jiping, still works as a train conductor, a job which keeps him away from home for most of the year. After his wife fell ill, he returned home to care for her, but ultimately returned to work after a few months. Their daughter works in the city of Pingdingshan, and their son is a high school student. He Jiping told reporters that, in the end, he had to send his wife to the nursing home “to ensure that she didn’t go hungry.”

Lushan County is home to 900,000 residents but has only two nursing homes: the publicly-run Kangle Nursing Home built by the Lushan County Hospital, which suffers from a shortage of beds, and the private Kangleyuan facility. About 10 years ago, Lushan local Fan Huazhi built the private elderly care home after seeing the explosion in the number of “left behind” seniors in the local population.

Kangleyuan has 200 beds, rental of which costs 1,500 yuan (US$242) to 2,000 yuan (US$322) per month including three meals a day. Li Yun told the media that the first time that she went to visit her mother at Kangleyuan, she found her unkempt and her sheets covered in grease stains. Liu Yufang shared a room with more than 10 other seniors, and there were only two duty nurses working alternate day and night shifts.

During the two months at Kangleyuan, Liu exchanged few words with her daughter, but Li described her mother crying and asking to be taken home. He Jiping had a similar experience when visiting his wife. “Whenever I saw my wife, she was asking to go home with me. I had no choice because I needed to work and nobody could take care of her,” he told NewsChina.

Li Yun said that the first day she visited her mother she was worried that the Kangleyuan’s steel-framed facility might be too hot in the summer, but after seeing the air conditioner in her mother’s room she felt relieved. In fact, the space between the steel panels of the prefabricated Kangleyuan bungalows was filled with insulating foam, making the structures highly flammable. These low-cost buildings, despite being fire traps, are widely used in cash-strapped Lushan. A local architect speaking on condition of anonymity told our reporter that the cost of building the kind of prefabricated houses used at the Kangleyuan facility is a little over 200 yuan (US$32) per square meter.

Crunch

The Kangleyuan tragedy has called further attention to China’s severe deficiency when it comes to providing safe, quality senior care for its rapidly aging population.

By the end of 2014, China had a total population of 212 million people over the age of 60, accounting for 15.5 percent of the national population. According to a report on aging published by the Social Sciences Academic Press in 2013, China’s elderly population will grow by 1 million annually until 2025 and is expected to be up to more than 400 million by the 2050s. In 2012, the population of “left-behind” elderly people in rural areas of China hit 50 million.

Recent statistics from China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs (MoCA) has shown that, as of the end of March 2015, China is home to 31,833 registered senior care centers with a combined total of 5.84 million beds – meaning an average of 27.5 beds for every thousand elderly people. Although many families care for their elderly members in the home, China’s urbanization drive has spread households across the country, with fewer and fewer working people able to offer full-time in-home care to their elderly parents.

In recent years, China’s civil affairs departments have unveiled a series of preferential policies to give a boost to the establishment of private senior care facilities. But, according to MoCA data released in January, 51 percent of private nursing centers in China have no budget surplus, while 40 percent are operating at a loss, seriously constricting these facilities’ ability to expand or improve their services.

“If it were not supported by the county hospital, the Kangle Nursing Home would have closed its doors,” Xiao Bingyin, head of the public Kangle facility told our reporter.

Despite being privately owned, the Kangleyuan facility was unable to expand to cope with demand, adding the cheap bungalows to its main building in 2012 in an attempt to accommodate additional residents. The facility had operated for 10 years before finally receiving a government license in 2010. In September 2013, Lushan County Development and Reform Department approved the expansion of the Kangleyuan facility by adding 20 brand-new buildings at a cost of of 39.7 million yuan (US$6.4m), including 30 million yuan (US$4.8m) in government funding. The project, however, was delayed indefinitely because the pledged funds failed to arrive.

In the wake of the disaster, Yan Qingchun, vice-president of the China National Committee on Aging, told the media that, while the construction, facilities, operation and staffing of public senior care institutions are financed by the government, private institutions have to support themselves.

“There is no way for private elderly care institutions to compete with public ones, and running a private institution has become increasingly difficult,” he said.

Compensation

On the morning of May 26, Tu Xiaohong went to Kangleyuan, followed by the county hospital and finally the county funeral home in the hope of being able to see her sister’s body, to no avail. Thwarted, Tu, along with other victims’ relatives, went to the county justice bureau to seek answers. At around 11 AM, relatives received a call from the government telling them they would be placed at several hotels around the county, “accompanied” by local officials.

At noon the same day, the provincial government held a press conference and announced that the fire had “destroyed” 51 beds, which had been occupied by 44 elderly people. Kangleyuan’s owner Fan Huazhi was detained, and four local officials were sacked, including the deputy Party chief of Lushan County. In the afternoon, family relatives submitted to blood testing to allow their DNA to be matched with the bodies of unidentified victims. On the morning of May 28, the test results revealed that Liu Yufang had survived the blaze, but that Tu Xinli had perished.

Families who had lost a relative were offered 500,000 yuan (US$80,550) compensation by the local government, in exchange for a signed pledge not to make further claims, and to cremate the bodies within a few days. Guo Xiuhua, a lawyer from the Beijing-based DeHeng Law Firm told NewsChina that as an investigation into the blaze is still underway, deciding compensation and striking such deals before all the facts are disclosed could be a violation of judicial procedure.

“The government has two aims – to cover the costs of victims’ families and to offer them some spiritual comfort. But whether this is compensation or simply ‘relief’ needs to be discussed,” she said.

Initially, relatives of victims refused to sign the agreement, insisting on learning the causes behind the fire. Gradually, however, Tu Xiaohong told NewsChina, she found herself fighting an uphill battle. Tu’s family members initially demanded higher compensation due to the fact that their mother was considerably younger than most of the other victims. However, on May 29, after several rounds of fruitless negotiations, the family agreed to take the government’s offer. Tu Xinli was cremated the following day.

Tu Xiaohong also has two daughters. She told NewsChina that when they grow up, she and her husband will also live in a nursing home.

“I hope the government, after this tragedy, can spend more money on nursing homes to avoid such accidents from happening again when we are old,” she said.

Some victims’ relatives told the media that they were planning to donate the compensation to charity. “We just hope that the money can be spent on more elderly people to help them enjoy their twilight years,” Tang Tieli, a victim’s relative, told Mirror Evening News.

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