Preparing for the Golden Years
Have you pictured what your life will be like when you’re old? Whether living alone, or in the company of family, or growing old with a group of good friends, old age can have many forms.
Preparing for the Golden YearsBy Yi-ting Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 619 )
We remember snippets of the past, friends’ likes and dislikes, familiar customers’ needs… yet fail to understand the companion we will spend the last stage of life with - “old age.”
What does old age look like? How should we prepare for it? In Taiwan, a group of middle-aged people is preparing for their old age.
One late afternoon around four o’clock, former Ilan County Bureau of Cultural Affairs Director Lin Chiu-fang is busily shuttling in and out of the kitchen with coffee and snacks for her cousin and older brother. An even more common scene here is dozens of family members dividing up tasks to prepare dinner together and enjoying a meal at the same table.
Not the setting of a family reunion or holiday gathering, the above scene is the actual day-to-day situation at the Tangyuan Community, a residential building in Ilan’s Jiaosi Township.
Like a modern version of a traditional family compound, “My nephew often runs into a dozen or so great aunties, or eight or nine great uncles… this is so rare in modern society,” relates Lin Wang-ken, Lin Chiu-fang’s older brother and chairman of the community’s residential committee.
All of this can be attributed to spatial reorganization. Eight years ago, eight of the area’s biggest landowners got together to build a co-op style collective residential community with over 300 units, attracting friends and relatives who had married off as far as Kaohsiung and Tainan, or who had been working in Taipei, to return to live here.
Lin Chiu-fang, once active in Taipei’s arts and culture scene, returned to her roots after nearly 30 years away. “I never imagined I could grow old with all these sisters,” she says, reflecting on how the shared memories and topics of discussion tie the family closer together.
Beyond those ties, the clubs she actively worked to establish in the community, from line dancing to a swim team and a flower arranging class, help residents cultivate common interests. “When everyone’s together all the time, things are constantly happening to bring us closer.” This both expands the social group and keeps everyone active.
A year ago, having led community building through “village aesthetics,” Lin started a community fabric dyeing course. Beginning with getting to know local plants and flowers, to dyeing and design, participants got to use their minds and hands while learning about the beauty of local arts and culture. “I only retired from my career, not life. And I want to inject beauty into each and every family situation.” This is how Lin describes the mission she has given herself.
Single and Ready
“Rummi!” Suddenly, a loud roar emanates from the library classroom, as several gray-haired and graying seniors chatter boisterously about the tiles scattered on the table. They are playing Rummikub, a game that is new to them and gets them pumped up as they call out the foreign word “Rummi!”
To one side, 60-year-old Chuang Shu-hui, her hair jet black, and known as the “master of table games” among her elders, focuses intently as she explains the proceedings. Under her guidance, a number of elders meet each Friday to play games. From Dixit to Blokus, nothing is beyond their grasp. “We want old folks to use their brains in these classes to stay alert and keep from stagnating as they make new friends,” she says.
A senior education enthusiast, Chuang retired six years ago from a trading company. Unmarried, retirement to her meant ending a 30-year relationship with work.
At the time, she had not given much thought to what her life would be like post-retirement or in her golden years. “I was just in my fifties at the time, and in good physical condition. So I didn’t think much about what it would be like to be older,” she admits.
It wasn’t until she attended a seniors’ education teachers’ training course sponsored by the Ministry of Education did she finally understand what “being old” means. And with that new appreciation, she began planning for the post-retirement lives of herself and others.
At present, she gives talks at different neighborhoods around Taipei three mornings each week, teaching older folks what it means to be “old,” how to slow down the aging process, and how to play board games. Vivacious and full of energy, she makes new friends wherever she goes, and is constantly absorbing new information and knowledge to enrich her courses.
She practices what she preaches in the fight against aging, which as an older person living alone is especially vital for her in facing aging on her own. “I can run, jump, and go out, but one day if my body won’t let me do these things, I don’t want to be a burden on other people. Especially as I live alone, finding someone in a pinch is not easy, so I have to be prepared,” she says.
Thinking even farther down the road, she has prepared for 20 years from now. “One day if I’m unable to get around physically, what activities can I accomplish at home on my own?”
With this in mind, she began practicing tai-chi three years ago, and playing Sudoku, while continuing her voracious reading habit, so that one day when it is more difficult for her to get out she will be able to maintain her practices of exercising and keeping her mind active while staying at home.
Independent, yet Together
At 3:00 p.m., Liao Wen-yu, a 63-year-old retiree, waits at the school gate as usual to pick up her grandson and granddaughter. “It’s so wonderful being around them. It keeps you young!” she exclaims joyfully. Eager to explore the world around them, her grandchildren take her to play ball games, throw a Frisbee, and even play piano together.
Yet Liao knows that her grandchildren, ages six and eight, will one day grow up, just as she knew her children eventually would when she was a young mother. Consequently, rather than focusing exclusively on her family as most Taiwanese parents tend to do, her philosophy is: Save some time for yourself, and leave some breathing room for everyone.
“Look for ways to have fun,” she offers. “Keep your mind open to learning, and keep working at improving yourself.”
She follows this approach herself. For instance, when she left her job at one point to care for her children, she turned her love for drawing and painting into freelance work, making illustrations for magazines.
As a grandmother, Liao makes good use of her time before the grandchildren get out of school, volunteering or taking acting and voice lessons with a few old friends, practicing facial expressions. “I need more than just my husband; I need a lot of like-minded good friends,” she says. Observing that some 80-year-olds in her activities are spry and full of energy, she made a pact with friends to follow their example. “Many elderly folks are very independent and need not worry their family members,” she points out. For family, and for herself, she is starting right now.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman