CHINA's families might be about to become a little closer - with the threat of official involvement if they don't.
Under a proposal sent from the Civil Affairs Ministry to China's State Council in the past few days, adult children would be required by law to regularly visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them.
"Before, the courts did not accept this kind of lawsuit," Wu Ming, a deputy inspector for the ministry, told the Legal Evening News. "But from now on, they will have to open up a case."
The proposed amendment to a 1996 law on rights of the aged could be considered by the National People's Congress, China's government-appointed legislature, when it conducts its annual session in March.
Concerns about how to care for China's older people are growing as the nation's population rapidly gets older, wealthier and more urbanised.
China has the world's third-highest elderly suicide rate, trailing only South Korea and Taiwan, according to Jing Jun, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who compiled figures from the World Health Organisation and Taiwan.
The figures show a disturbing increase in suicides among the urban elderly in the past decade, a trend Mr Jing blames partly on urbanisation.
Once ensconced in intimate neighbourhoods of courtyard houses and small lanes and surrounded by relatives and acquaintances, older people in China are increasingly moving into lonely high-rises and feeling forgotten, he said.
The average suicide rate among people aged 70-74 living in cities nearly tripled between 2002 and 2009, compared with the average rate for the 1990s, his research shows.
The notion that adult children should care for their aged parents is deeply ingrained in Chinese society.
Offspring who shirk their responsibilities are met with scorn - and sometimes legal judgments. In Shandong Province, for instance, a court ordered three daughters to each pay their 80-year-old mother between 350 to 500 renminbi, about 33-47 a month, after the mother claimed that they ignored her and treated her like a burden, the Qingdao Evening News recently reported.
But China's elderly population is growing rapidly while the number of young adults is shrinking, a huge demographic shift that has been building for decades.
While the elderly still make up a relatively small share of China's population compared with some western nations, demographers predict the proportion of elderly will nearly double from 2008 to 2025. By 2050, they say, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older.
"I know the person who drafted this provision, and the first thing I told him was, 'really nice move'," said Ninie Wang, international director of the Gerontological Society of China, a Beijing-based research group."The whole society needs to start seeing we need to give the elderly more care and attention."
More than half of all Chinese over the age of 60 now live separately from their adult children, according to a November report by China's National Committee on Ageing, an advisory group to the State Council. That percentage shoots up to 70 per cent in some major cities, the report said. Half of those over the age of 60 suffer from chronic illness and about three in ten suffer from depression or other mental disorders, the group said.
The Civil Affairs Ministry is not the only government agency rushing to the defence of older people. Last week, the eastern province of Jiangsu passed an ordinance forbidding adult children from forcing their parents to give them money or goods.