Let the elderly play children’s games to reduce loneliness


ChinaIn the aged care center, eight silver heads are clustered around a table, each clutching a piece of plastic pipe.

“You guys pass the ball from your plastic pipe to the person next to you. Those who don’t catch and don’t pass the ball will be penalized,” said the female staff member, guiding the group, laughing.

This is one of many activities the Huayang integrated aged care center staff (in Shanghai) organizes for the elderly in the neighborhood. The room looked like it was having a party for a kid: there were sand-painting tools, a ring toss game set, a stack of memory cards. But these games all have the serious goal of enhancing the mental and physical health of senior members.

Elderly people play a game of passing the ball through a plastic pipe at the center of Huayang. Photo: Sixthtone

Shi Junjie, facility manager of Huayang in Changning district, Shanghai said: “Elderly people are lonely when they have to stay at home alone. Interacting with staff and other elderly people makes them very happy.” Huayang is one of many Chinese organizations that are contributing to solving the loneliness crisis, creating joy for the elderly.

Loneliness is a big problem for the elderly around the world and is especially serious in China. Decades of large-scale internal migration (moving around to care for children and grandchildren) has left millions of retirees “old people drifting”. Many people struggle to adjust to a new life in the city, where they often don’t know anyone but their children.

According to studies, loneliness affects mental health, is a trigger for anxiety and depression, contributes to cognitive decline and causes premature death. Aware of the danger, China’s care industry stepped up to provide toys and games for the elderly.

They expect playing a lot to make retirees happier and easier to make friends. Children also begin to be aware of this, so they should buy toys for their parents. However, what the elderly need is not “to throw them a bag of toys”, but companionship.

Wang Fuqing, a member of the Chinese Association of Geriatrics, said the organization is encouraging elderly care facilities across the country to experiment with play sessions. He strongly supported the idea after a trial at a nursing home in Beijing.

It organizes two fun sessions for the elderly every week, about two hours each. Attendance rate is 98%. After three months of participation, nursing home staff saw a marked improvement in their cognitive and emotional abilities among elderly members. “Some people say that because they play the game, they are willing to go to the room and get to know other people. Their memory has also improved significantly,” said Wang Fuqing.

In Huayang, the seniors’ favorite activities are sand painting and coloring. In addition, the staff offers other physical activities such as tossing rings for the tools to exercise. “Older people who don’t exercise will age faster. Toys and games can delay the aging process,” Shi Junjie said.

Zhong Zhixiang (centre) plays hoop at the Huayang Integrated Aged Care Center, Shanghai, August 20, 2021. Photo: Sixthtone

Zhong Zhixiang (centre) plays hoop at the Huayang Integrated Aged Care Center, Shanghai, August 20, 2021. Photo: Sixthtone

During the game of catching a ball to help make friends, Mr. Zhong Zhixiang, 98, dropped the ball from a plastic pipe and was punished for singing a song. He stood up from his chair, singing a tune in English.

The old man, a retired worker, said he enjoyed playing in Huayang and loved the game of tossing the ring the most. His regret is that the center does not have a ball game, which is the old man’s favorite game when he was a child.

Besides those who are open to the “childish games” for the elderly, many others believe that the elderly should only stick to serious activities such as cooking, taking care of children and writing calligraphy.

These stereotypes make the market for toys for the elderly, despite its great potential, still in its infancy. Currently, there are no Chinese companies or organizations specializing in the production of toys for the elderly in the domestic market. While it is currently home to more than 260 million people aged 60 and over, it is expected to exceed 400 million by 2040.

Because of the scarcity of specialized toys for the elderly, some establishments have had to manually produce them.

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