Published: 14:39, February 22, 2024 | Updated: 16:31, February 24, 2024
Age of insight
By Wang Qian

A video channel featuring residents of an elderly care home in Tianjin appeals to younger audiences, especially with lighthearted takes on heavy topics, Wang Qian reports.

Funny videos featuring 90-year-old teacher Yu Fangyou (front) and her three gray-haired students (from left) — 73-year-old Geng Fengru, 80-year-old Chen Weizhen and 62-year-old Wang Li — have gone viral. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Over time, many elderly residents of the Jingya Care Home in North China's Tianjin succumbed to a sense of malaise — that is, until they met 29-year-old Chen Zhuo.

The residents, who range in age from their 60s to their 90s, had fallen into repetitive, monotonous and quiet routines.

But Chen's arrival shook them out of their funk and propelled them on adventures of self-discovery.

These short videos help the elderly escape the tedious routines of the care home. This makes them feel needed, valued and useful, and keeps them connected.

Chen Zhuo, creator of short videos about care home life

They've since gone on to share their inspiration and knowledge with people, receiving millions of views on Douyin, a short-video platform otherwise typically inhabited by young digital natives. In turn, this has undone many stereotypes about aging in the public mind.

"These short videos help the elderly escape the tedious routines of the care home," says Chen, who is director, scriptwriter and cameraman.

"This makes them feel needed, valued and useful, and keeps them connected. What's more, they have started embracing the future with hope. At the same time, the videos are a mirror that reflects the struggles and challenges most people face today. This resonates with viewers."

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Chen says he believes this is why their account has racked up more than 700,000 followers since they posted their first video in April of last year. He has consequently been able to develop a potential career creating social media content about elderly care facilities while encouraging more young people to care about the older generation.

A Douyin user with the user-name "Spyz" comments: "This is the care home that I want to go to for my later years." Another who goes by "Amy" says: "These videos always lift me up when I feel down."

The videos are made with creativity and unexpected wit. For instance, the residents don middle school uniforms and talk humorously about issues faced by youth, including anxiety and bullying.

The presenters don middle school uniforms and talk humorously about issues faced by youth, including anxiety and bullying. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The series features 90-year-old teacher Yu Fangyou and three silver-haired pupils — the talkative 80-year-old Chen Weizhen, who's better known online as "Carl" for his similarity to the protagonist of the 2009 Pixar movie, Up; 73-year-old Geng Fengru, who is called "Alice" in the videos; and 62-year-old Wang Li, who is also known as "Bob".

Before coming back to his hometown of Tianjin to visit his grandfather Chen Weizhen at the Jingya Care Home, Chen Zhuo worked in the cross-border e-commerce sector in Guangzhou, Guangdong province.

"My grandpa has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is a rare neurological disorder where the nerves are attacked by the immune system. It causes weakness and tingling in the arms and legs," Chen Zhuo says.

"Although he has recovered, in the worst case scenario, he might only have been able to move his eyelids and mouth. I want to be with him in his later years. I don't want to regret missing this time."

Chen Zhuo previously had no idea what care homes were like. He visited Jingya with a sense of curiosity in March last year. During the first month, he observed that the residents' lives are like in kindegarten. They follow a strict schedule regulating what they eat, and when to rest and exercise.

With a major in radio and television scriptwriting and directing from Tiangong University in Tianjin, Chen Zhuo used his skills to record his grandfather's life in the care home and posted videos on Douyin.

Later, he began to stage amusing situations involving a set of characters.

The first viral video was from his Lessons in Chemistry Experiments series, in which the "teacher" sets the tone in the classroom. Yu actually worked as a chemistry teacher at Tianjin Yaohua High School before retirement.

In one episode, Yu asks Carl to identify a gas. Only after Carl directly snorts the fumes does the teacher remind him that the gas, which reeks like rotten eggs, is toxic hydrogen sulfide, and so he should cup his hand above the container and waft it toward his face rather than put his nostrils on the container's lip and inhale.

Video creator Chen Zhuo (left) discusses a scene with Yu. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Still clad in his school uniform, Carl is carried off on a stretcher and arrives at Nantianmen (Southern Heavenly Gate), the main gate of the Jade Emperor's palace in heaven.

At the gate, Buddha asks Carl: "Why have you come?" With his hands behind his back, Carl answers: "My chemistry teacher sent me."

After the first series went viral online, Chen Zhuo explained that it was Yu's 30 years of teaching experience that inspired him.

Her husband died from pancreatic cancer about 20 years ago, but she has remained passionate and curious about life.

Before living in the care home, Yu spent six years at a university for the elderly. As she came to the age when she needed more healthcare services, the then 81-year-old decided to move into a nursing home.

"But her life became less active in the care facility, until we started filming. Since then, she has been learning about filming techniques and participating in editing scripts. She told me later that life is fun when you learn, no matter what age you are," Chen Zhuo says.

Following the success of the chemistry lesson series, he has created other popular videos, including the series, Inspirational Wisdom and Sensibility and At the Nursing Home in 50 Years.

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Chen Zhuo says he has learned a lot from the elderly during this process.

"They have faced grief and losses, including illnesses, family changes and the deaths of loved ones and friends. Life is so full of suffering, but no matter what it throws at them, they don't give up."

In the videos, Chen Zhuo tries to discuss aging and death in a lighthearted way.

In one video, for instance, Yu checks her contacts book to cross out the phone numbers of people who've passed away. As the ratio of survivors diminishes over time, Bob says the notebook is more like a "list of the living and the dead".Upon hearing this, Alice throws her phone away to avoid being listed.

A netizen with the online name "Yueliang" comments that, although death is a serious topic, she can't help but laugh when Alice throws away her phone.

"Aging and dying are inevitable," Chen Zhuo says. "I feel the resilience of these elderly people in the face of this natural process."

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