Chinese elderly are living it up

Taking a look at Chinese culture, most older than 60 here would drool from jealousy.

Diana Fu

Let’s put away the depressing election results for a moment. Imagine yourself a few decades older, with lines on your face and a bladder problem.

Your partner is carting himself or herself around in an electric wheelchair, and instead of slapping around, you poke at each other with your canes, “The Democrats ain’t gonna do nothin’ for us ol’folk, Betty. Theys got no morals.” “What do you know about morals, you old skunk? You let our own Johnny go off killin’ folks in the dessert.”

Then you both take your vitamins, fish oil, bladder bags and heart medication, and cart off to opposite sides of the old people’s home. Sound pathetic? Taking a look at Chinese elderly, most people more than 60 years old in the United States would drool from jealousy. In taking care of the elderly, the United States has a lot to learn.

Take a walk through any city park in Beijing and you will gape. At 6 a.m., the gates open and troops of elderly folk flood in with chessboards, violins, dusty tape recorders, radios, fans and birdcages. Behind a line of trees, they start their morning breathing exercises, many of them still wearing navy blue Mao-era shirts. Along the walkways, some old, crooked-backed ladies have already set up dance practice. Hips in, out, out, in. They might not have calcium pills, but they have red fans to wave about.

On a nearby bench, a nearly blind old man plays his “erhu,” a Chinese violin with only two strings. His veined hands tremble like his voice. His grandson sits beside him. Then there are the shyer types, with their age-old radios and pet birds. They chatter, bicker and gamble. They live.

In the United States, the media fuss about health care, the cost of drugs and the migration of the elderly to Florida. They’re missing the point: The elderly need emotional and psychological healing.

Part of this is socializing with one another and interacting with youth. Aside from students who do their monthly visit to “homes” as a volunteer requirement, many U.S. elderly are left to suffer their old age alone. Their children are busy with jobs, their grandchildren with soccer practice. Most suburbs are not designed for walking, which means elderly are either stranded in their houses or sent to the “home.”

Few in China dare to send elderly away. In this interdependent society, there is reciprocity. Your parents don’t leave you to fund your own college education, kick you out when you’re past 21 or send you a telephone bill. In turn, when parents grow old, they live in the household, are taken care of and at the same time take care of their grandchildren.

This tight-knit structure might sound threateningly suffocating to those of us raised in independent cultures in which being “oneself” is a top priority and being a part of a larger network is secondary. But the Chinese way of living might be emotionally and psychologically healthier.

Instead of being obsessed with drugging the elderly, perhaps it would be better to create a network that boosts old people’s social lives beyond a cup of McDonald’s coffee. Maybe we should encourage fishing clubs, knitting circles and “take-your-grandchild-to-the-home” day.

One of my favorite moments in Beijing is watching a troop of old ladies with perms, tossing red handkerchiefs and swinging their bodies to a ’60s tune while cars and motorcycles stream by. They are not waiting for poker night at the home.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China for one year. Please send comments to [email protected]