Across China: Community spirit enlivens China’s golden-agers

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Beijing—Chen Xuemin lives in northern Beijing. Last month, as soon as she received her pension, she donated 300 yuan (about 43 U.S. dollars) to her local community theater.
Theater director Nong Miaomiao lives in the same community. At the end of August, she heard that Chen’s husband Fu was seriously ill.
Soon, Nong had gathered twenty other residents to make a video of the latest performances, and sent it, with their best wishes to the old couple. It was the last performance Fu ever saw.
The theater, created by the district government and Tsinghua University in 2014, was conceived as an experiment in bringing together senior citizens to administer their own community activities.
“We want all residents to take part in running their own community and to generate the kind of social vitality which works for them,” said Li Qiang, dean of the school of social sciences at Tsinghua University, who oversees the program.
“If the residents have good reason to be more closely integrated with one another, a harmonious and happy community will take shape,” Li said.
It is no secret that China’s aging society is one of the foremost social issues of the times. China has more than 220 million people over 60 years old, 16.1 percent of the population, and both the absolute number and the percentage are growing.
Of those senior citizens, 15.3 percent believe they need to be taken care of, much more than double the amount in 2000, and a very heavy pressure on the government.
“One way to lessen the aging problem is for old people to learn to better care for themselves and for each other,” Li said.
Established in the 1990s, the community where Chen and Nong live has a poor environment and old public facilities. Most residents are seniors who were resettled here when the buildings were new and their original residences were demolished.
When Li began working with the community, he set up a committee of 34, most of whom were retired. They identify problems, listen to the other residents, and discuss solutions. Many committee members feel they are busier today than before they retired. And the district authorities pay attention: A lot of their suggestions have been adopted, such as building bike sheds and planting more trees.
“At first, they did not have much idea what they should do, and were reluctant to attend meetings,” said Liu Huili, head of the government office in the community.
“Later, when they found they really could make a difference, their motivation took off.”
One example of the seniors new-found enthusiasm is Li Jianming, 78, who has practiced tai-chi for eight years. In China, eight years is not really a huge amount of experience in the art, but nonetheless, he volunteered to set up a class and now leads a dozen of his fellow residents as they exercise in a nearby park for at least two hours every morning.
With the enthusiastic support of a nearby language school, the seniors set up a classroom to learn English. The classroom is now a popular hangout for the old folks and many spend their spare time chatting there, sometimes even in English!
At an international health summit in Shanghai in October, Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University Mailman school of public health, told the audience that seniors who participate in community development are able to feel useful to society again, and have more to offer themselves, their neighbors and the world at large. With proper opportunities, an aging population can bring its own demographic dividend.
“Communities are the cell from which the body of society is made. If communities are well managed, many social problems are readily solved,” Li Qiang said.—Xinhua