An 85-year-old man who asked to be adopted has got people all over the world talking about loneliness, and raised questions about how we look after our elderly.

Lonely after his wife died and frightened of dying alone, Han Zicheng posted a notice in his local bus shelter asking if a kind-hearted person would adopt him.

The story attracted media attention around the world because it puts a human face to the growing global phenomenon of loneliness and social isolation, and the devastating sadness it casts over people.

“Lonely old man in his 80s,” Zicheng wrote.

“Strong-bodied. Can shop, cook and take care of himself. No chronic illness. I retired form a scientific research institute in Tainjin, with a monthly pension of $1,200 (the equivalent of 6,000 RMB).

“I won’t go to a nursing home. My hope is that a kindhearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age, and bury my body when I’m dead.”

Loneliness a global problem

All around the world, more people are living alone, feeling isolated and cut off from society.

The links between loneliness and poor health are now well established. Social isolation has been linked with higher rates of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and even suicide attempts.

Research by Flinders Centre for Ageing Studies, showed that those who have a large network of friends outlived those with few friends by 22 per cent.

In the 2016 Census, almost one-quarter of Australian households had only one occupant, up from only one in five households in 1991. ABS estimates that the number of people living alone will increase from 2.1 million people in 2011 to between 3.3 million and 3.4 million by 2036. 

In the UK, more than one million people spend their days alone. The issue of loneliness has become so pronounced that Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, whose role is to develop a national strategy to address social isolation.

Even more people will live alone as the population ages, as older people tend to have higher rates of living alone.

In Australia, people over the age of 65 are expected to make up 22 per cent of the population by 2061, compared with 16 per cent in 2016 and 14 per cent in 2011.

The problem of an ageing population is even more pronounced in China because of years under the one-child policy. Fifteen per cent of the population in China is more than 60 years old, and by 2040 that will be nearly one-quarter.

A better way to look after the elderly

After Han posted the notice, his local community reached out. A restaurant offered him food, a journalist visited. A law student rang him, and they maintained a long-distance friendship for a time.

But there were no offers of care that Han felt inclined to take up.

Han could have afforded to move into a nursing home, but there is a stigma attached to nursing homes in China – it is seen as a sign that their children won’t care for them. And anyway, Han had tried the food there and said it was terrible.

Han said he had two sons. One he had fallen out with, and the other lived in Canada but didn’t call often.

A few months after Han posted the notice, the calls and attention eased off. Winter came, and Han again began to wonder if he would die alone.

In his final days, Han called a help line especially designed to prevent suicide among the elderly. Han continued to call The Beijing Love Delivery Hotline, as the helpline is called, until a couple of weeks before he died.

He had lived through the cultural revolution, worked for years in a factory, and expected to grow old surrounded by family who would care for him.

Han said the Chinese government needs to find new ways to look after its older people.

He told The Washington Post that elderly people are like flowers and trees. “If we are not watered, we cannot grow,” he said.

When Han finally became really ill, he called the hospital. And when he died soon afterwards, it was the staff at the hospital that saved him from dying alone.

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