Drawing on the data from the research that samples 400 elderly who lived separately from their migrant children in 10 rural communities in China, this paper examines how the outmigration of rural youth shapes the situation of their older kin and analyses the consequences of the rural–urban migration for the old-age support system. The research finds that a large scale of rural labour force has been drained off from rural societies and placed in a ‘semi-proletarianized’ situation during the recent three decades of rapid social transformations. The rules and resources of traditional care system have been changed and family is no longer a ‘network of safety’ or reliable source of obtaining support for the elderly. Although some elastics and adaptabilities can be found in rural families, the family cannot soften and deal with all the risks popped up in the transformation independently. It can be said that the migration of the rural workforce to urban centres has degraded the welfare of the left-behind elderly. Institutional interventions should no longer mystify and romanticise the role of the family, rather, it should look beyond the family level, caring more about ‘human beings’ instead of economy and efficiency. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.