It is projected that China will become the country with the largest aging population in the world by 2050. During the process, elderly people are expecting a dignified life with more choices to expand their horizons.
As the aging population swells, there is now a growing movement of retirees integrating into society through education institutes for senior citizen as their thirst for learning new skills and knowledge grows.
Elderly photography enthusiasts lining up on the east side of the Zhapu Road Bridge spanning across the Suzhou River in Shanghai to take photos of the beautiful Waibaidu Bridge and Lujiazui at around 5 p.m. on June 12, 2019.
Loneliness Defying Description
The mental health of the elderly is becoming a prominent social problem. Experts say senior citizens are more prone to mental health issues. Statistics showed that some 23.6 percent of Chinese people at and above 55 years old suffer from depression. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the psychological problems of the elderly, especially those living on their own, known as “empty nesters.”
Zhou Hong, a psychological counselor for the elderly, said that those living on their own or losing abilities of self-care are more susceptible to depression.
According to Zhou, the pandemic in particular, has plunged the aged into a more vulnerable state, where they need professional personnel to provide psychological counseling and help.
Zhou said that most senior citizens do not take a gloomy view of life, but this doesn’t indicate that they are not lonely.
He believes that loneliness of the elderly is different from that of the young and is difficult to explain.
“Of course they are lonely. How could they not be? They just don’t like to speak about it. It is something that cannot be expressed in words,” said a teacher surnamed Li who works on an education program for retirees.
As a way of alleviating loneliness, Li thinks it will be helpful if senior citizens can attend college programs dedicated to the elderly.
Liu Yuanli, dean of the School of Public Health of Peking Union Medical College, is in agreement. “We can also encourage retired intellectuals to contribute,” Liu suggested. It’s a process of gaining the sense of self-worth and keeping mental health by helping their contemporaries, according to him.
Three teachers at Xiangyang University for the Elderly teaching a yoga class to students through a live streaming platform in Xiangyang, central China’s Hubei Province, on September 14, 2020.
A More Fulfilling Life
Sixty-seven-year-old retiree surnamed Qi is a freshman in a college program. He finally got an entry last year after waiting a long time as the programs are so popular. The program he signed up for is about writing. Qi has had an interest in literature since childhood. He wants to record his life in the college so as to encourage more elderly people to join up.
Another retiree in Shijiazhuang, capital city of north China’s Hebei Province, has spent 10 years in a college for the elderly. Surnamed Zhao, the 62-year-old lady, said she would keep learning as long as she remained in good physical health. During the past 10 years, she has attended programs teaching dancing, photography, and English among many other subjects. This year, she chose calligraphy as her major.
In 2017, Wang Jian volunteered to work as a part-time photography teacher for a college program for senior people. Originally, he just wanted to do something for the community, but he fell in love with this job as time went by. “It has been an emotional experience. Students in the program range in age from 55 to 83. Their passion for life, art, and photography deeply touched me. I want to teach them,” said Wang.
A calligraphy and art teacher surnamed Li in Shijiazhuang said although some students do not have the correct materials, such as brush, ink and inkstone, they tried their best painting flowers, birds or landscapes with whatever materials were at hand. “Despite lack of materials, the students did not grumble, but put all the effort possible into learning,” Li said.
Li has unique views on the popularity of college programs for seniors. “In the past, the elderly were either busy making money or sitting idle at home. In recent years, people began to care more about for their cultural lives. This is a good change,” Li said.
In fact, many aged people attend the college programs for the joy of mingling with their contemporaries. “Although we cannot contribute to society in the same way as young people do, it’s enjoyable to learn more alongside other students, and not have our children worry about us,” said Zhao. Before signing up for the photography program, she often took part in public welfare activities, and filmed her daily life for fun.
Gradually, the elderly people who study together become friends, often going out for dinner parties. “It’s like we have returned to our younger days,” said Zhao. They also help each other where they can. People’s lives are colorful when they are young. They have romance, friendships, and family. As they get older and retired, friends become remote and family leave. Fortunately, these new college connections can still be made, said Zhao.
Dignified Retired Life
Education for the aged at these colleges is comprehensive, meeting their cultural needs and enhancing the quality of their life.
Currently, the elderly people’s demand for education is growing, and picking up new skills with a college program is becoming a fad.
It is reported that in a public university for the elderly in Dongcheng District of Beijing, the number of students has exceeded 4,000. Although more than 100 programs are opened every year, vacancies for new students are still difficult to find. The elderly basically wrestle for registration, and some even queue all night to get an entry.
Senior people say this situation has persisted for many years and demand continues to grow. For popular programs such as those on photography, dancing, and computer, there are not sufficient teachers and few classes.
Retiree surnamed Zhang from Cangzhou, Hebei Province, waited for a photography class for two years. Eventually she had to opt for a relatively unpopular go class. This year, she failed again to get a place on the photography course, so she took a go class again, only to find that the teacher repeated what she had learned the previous year. She was left disheartened.
In contrast with senior citizens’ thirst for fulfillment is the lack of access to tailored education programs.
“Preliminary estimation shows that every eight or 10 senior people compete for one vacancy in such a program,” said Diao Haifeng, executive vice president of the China Association of the Universities for the Aged, indicating that there is still great space for the development of China’s elderly education.
“We should recognize that many senior citizens are willing to contribute to society. In addition to meeting their basic needs, they have nobler pursuit as individuals. I propose to set up more universities for the elderly, and transform some facilities and institutions serving the elderly into colleges for them. In this way, their late life can become more comfortable and tranquil,” said Liu Yuanli, dean of the School of Public Health of Peking Union Medical College.
Participants enjoy a calligraphy class at the Fuzhou Senior Citizen University on September 20, 2019.
Potential Business Opportunities
A young entrepreneur surnamed Wang found business opportunities when choosing an education program for his retired mother.
Last year, Wang officially started his business adventure — an education project targeting people aged 45 to 65.
Wang set out to find what kind of products and services this group of people wanted. He and his team subsequently went about creating a teaching method catering to the needs of his target customers.
Wang’s project was inevitably affected by the epidemic, prompting his team to launch online courses. In addition to regular courses, they also offer short video production courses and develop templates that can be easily copied by their students.
“Aging societies are becoming a global trend, but the elderly long for a colorful life. Education, fashion, and tourism are avenues for the middle-aged and elderly groups to socialize and make friends,” said Xiao.
Apart from start-ups like Wang’s, some training schools are cooperating with local governments in launching free education programs for the elderly.
Speaking of commercial opportunities of education for the elderly, Liu Yuanli said that the potential of elderly consumers has been underestimated.
“Senior people are experienced, sophisticated, and energetic. It is of great importance to fully appreciate and utilize the capacity of the aged,” Liu said.
ZHANG PEIHAO is a reporter with People’s Weekly.