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Elderly get festive care from local volunteers
( 2004-01-18 23:32) (China Daily By Raymond Zhou)

Lunar New Year's eve is a time when the top priority of Chinese people is spending time with family, but thousands of Beijingers have opted instead to visit elderly people they hardly know.

Some 2,500 volunteers have signed up to pay a friendly visit to senior citizens who have no children, or in some cases, are empty-nesters.

"They need our love and care more than ever at this time of the year," Wang Xuan, an officer at Beijing Community Service Centre, told China Daily on Sunday.

It is the first time the centre, affiliated with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, has arranged this kind of programme.

The response has been amazing, said Wang. The hotline 96156 has been ringing off the hook.

Volunteers come in all ages, the youngest being 16 and the oldest 72, who has offered to spend time with an 80-year-old.

They also come in all "sizes". Some are young people who decided to stay put in Beijing instead of travelling back to their hometowns. Others are whole families who want to invite old and lonely people to join them.

But not everyone who volunteers has a chance to participate. The centre has a screening and matching process.

Volunteers will get to know the elderly person they will spend time with beforehand.

They have to understand the special needs of those of old age. For example, they are advised not to stay late into the evening unless specifically requested, "because old people tend to go to bed early," explained Wang.

About one out of 10 applicants fails to finish the screening process due to time or location mismatch or some other reasons.

"But they'll have more chances for other occasions," said Wang. Actually many of the volunteers have already started lending a helping hand by doing cleaning or shopping.

On January 21, they will come by again in the evening to chat, cook or watch television.

One community centre in Shijingshan District will even send a choir to the local Jinding Street Home for Senior Citizens, to entertain them with golden oldies and Peking opera tunes.

"Taking care of the aged is a Chinese tradition. The visit will not only bring joy to the elderly, but also to me," said Zhou Xiang, a businesswoman, who told China Daily she'll take her 7-year-old with her.

"I want my daughter to learn that it can be a pleasure to be with an old person.

"In the long term, I believe I'll gain more from the experience, knowing that I've helped someone in a time of need."

Statistics indicate there are 1.78 million Beijing residents over the age of 60.

About 450,000 of them are empty-nesters.

The number is rising, but officials at the city senior citizen association say that 80 per cent are financially and physically sound. Those with difficulties are usually on the lists of community centres or neighborhood committees. Volunteers are recruited by these groups to provide aid, such as installing doorbells and doing household chores.

But the most important is to talk to them and make them less lonely, said the association's Yi Mi.

The New Year's eve programme is especially significant because of the contrast of familial warmth and joyful celebrations.

Similar programmes are cropping up nationwide. In Shanghai, a city with 2.5 million over the age of 60, 500 volunteers have signed up for the pilot programme.

In Xiamen, a programme was created when a resident wrote to a local paper, looking for a golden-ager whom she can spend time with and help out during the holiday season.

These are seeds of generosity and kindness, said Wang Xuan, and they will blossom as some of the volunteers have already joined other programmes to warm more hearts on more occasions.

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