China Focus: Silver-haired students rise against population ageing

Source: Xinhua| 2017-05-08 19:49:11|Editor: An
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JINAN, May 8 (Xinhua) -- It's never too late to learn. And for China's 230 million elderly, many are too busy studying, picking up hobbies and making new friends to feel old.

Liu Wenzhi gets up early, makes breakfast and sends her grandchildren to school. Before 8:30, the 65-year-old rushes to her own school. She is never late.

Her school, Dezhou College for the Aged, is located in east China's Shandong Province. As one of 60,000 education institutions for the elderly in China, it is a government-funded center that offers local seniors classes ranging from folk dance, calligraphy and Peking Opera to yoga and how to walk like a catwalk model.

Liu has studied traditional Chinese stringed instruments, the electronic piano, Peking Opera and paper-cutting.

"My life is busy but very rewarding," said Liu, a former clerk in a public institution in Dezhou City.

"Outside of work, people of my generation do not have hobbies. Our lives after retirement mainly focus on looking after grandchildren. The universities for the aged have changed everything," said Liu.

The world's first university dedicated to the elderly was established in France in 1973. Ten years later, China also set up its first university for seniors in Shandong's Jinan City.

China boasts around 60,000 elderly education institutions with more than 7 million silver-haired students, according to the China Association of Universities for the Aged.

Due to longer life expectancy and declining fertility rates, the proportion of people above the age of 60 is growing faster than other age groups in many countries.

China is among those with an aging population. The number of people over 60 reached 230 million, or 16.7 percent of the country's total population, at the end of 2016.

The growing senior population is a sign of success for health and medical improvements in the country. But how to ensure elderly people live happy, healthy, and social lives? Universities for the aged offer an answer.

"I'm the first in my village to attend the elderly college," said 63-year-old farmer Yang Ruijun, who stopped studying after primary school when she was young.

She began studying music in Dezhou College for the Aged last September, and has become a singing teacher for residents in Sunhuayao Village where she lives.

"Helping others is helping myself," said Yang. "I worked as a housewife and farmer for almost 40 years, doing housework and looking after children and grandchildren. When they grew up, I became old. But old age does not mean lonely and dull," said Yang.

School fees for elderly education institutions are affordable, and study time is flexible to encourage more elderly people who were unable to study when young to fulfill their college dreams.

Classes at Dezhou College for the Aged cost only 80 yuan (around 12 U.S. dollars) per class per term. Class is held between 8:30 to 10:30 in the morning and 2:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon.

"Picking up grandchildren will not be affected," said Liu Wei, the college's deputy head.

Shandong University for the Aged, China's first university of its kind, now offers more modern classes, such as saxophone, spoken English, and software and smartphone use, to its 20,000-plus registered students.

"The aim of elderly people is not only to learn. Through continuing study and upgrading knowledge in these schools, they will be better integrated into society and their sense of belonging will be boosted," said Wang Zhifang, head of continuing education school at Shandong Provincial Institute of Education Sciences.

However, competition for access to schools for the elderly is fierce due to limited resources. In some universities, elderly people even queue overnight for a chance to register for a class.

"As the 'wave of silver' sweeps across the country, expanding the existing campus areas is not enough to meet the stronger demand," said Du Yingjie, principal of Shandong University for the Aged.

Du encouraged more private capital to invest to improve facilities, increase the number of courses of study and attract more public attention to the aging population.

Shandong University for the Aged has established six branch schools under cooperation with local universities, banks and enterprises.

According to China's development plan for elderly education (2016-2020), every city should have at least one university for the elderly, and 50 percent of towns should have schools for the elderly, while 30 percent of villages should have learning centers for the elderly by 2020.

Liu Wenzhi plans to teach the seniors around her what she has learned in college.

"You're never too old to be young," she said.