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2019-05-08 13:07:57

A new Chinese reality series wants its viewers to remember what it’s like to forget.

Coproduced by streaming service Tencent Video, “Forget-Me-Not Café” casts a spotlight on people with cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s, in an effort to shun the shame associated with dementia and create more awareness of the condition, according to the show’s producers. The 10-episode series, which premiered on April 30, puts three celebrities and five people with cognitive disorders together to work alongside one another at a café in the southern city of Shenzhen.

“We hope that more young people will understand and pay more attention to elderly people with [Alzheimer’s],” Li Yang, the show’s executive producer, said during a press conference ahead of the premiere. “At the same time, we also hope this program will give the elderly people the opportunity to interact with others.”

As a form of dementia impacting an individual’s memory and cognitive abilities, Alzheimer’s affects over 9 million Chinese, according to the World Health Organization — and this figure is likely to rise due to the country’s aging population. A shortage of trained caregivers and a deep-seated social stigma around people with mental health issues means many living with Alzheimer’s feel isolated, living outside the public eye and under the watchful eyes of family members.

But “Forget-Me-Not Café” is on a mission to challenge unfounded stereotypes and change people’s minds. The five people with cognitive disorders, aged 65 to 81, are teamed up with the well-known actor Huang Bo and a few famous Chinese chefs: The older stars must take down food orders, chat with customers, and then serve them correctly — though this often proves easier said than done. The message the producers hope to deliver is that, whatever people’s perceptions may be, people with dementia are still eager to socialize and pursue their passions.

Hu Gongying is a 79-year-old English teacher from Guangzhou who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009. But she didn’t let the diagnosis dash her dreams: She still plays the piano and gives English classes, and she has even taken up painting as a new hobby.

“We enjoy our life very much, and that’s why we come here to work,” she told a group of international students visiting the café during Tuesday’s episode, speaking in English. “It’s (trying) to show people just like us — we cannot just wait at home, just wait for death, so we want to join to the society.”

A portrait of Hu Gongying and a young boy. From @腾讯视频忘不了餐厅 on Weibo

A portrait of Hu Gongying and a young boy. From @腾讯视频忘不了餐厅 on Weibo

The show’s positive message has tugged at the heartstrings of millions of viewers in China, with many saying they’ve been touched by the characters’ stories and gained a better understanding of Alzheimer’s. On microblogging platform Weibo, the hashtag for the show’s name had been viewed over 440 million times by Wednesday evening.

Dingxiang Doctor, a popular WeMedia account that shares medical expertise online, attributed the popularity of “Forget-Me-Not Café” to the nuanced way in which it portrays the realities and challenges people with Alzheimer’s face. On Q&A site Zhihu, Dingxiang Doctor explained that a lack of understanding of the condition in China often manifests as delayed diagnosis and treatment and urged viewers to be vigilant of early warning signs.

“Families who take care of people with Alzheimer’s should not be fighting alone: They need to be seen and be cared for,” wrote Dingxiang Doctor.

In recent years, China’s medical institutions have taken small but steady steps to help elderly people with dementia. While assisted-living facilities are employing artificially intelligent robots to provide tenants with care and comfort, state-supported research institutes like the China Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics are setting up new units to study cognitive disorders more extensively.

Alzheimer’s is more visible than ever in China’s media and pop culture. Earlier this year, the online series “All Is Well” sparked discussion about how families might best care for a relative with memory loss.

Now, it’s advocates like Hu, the English teacher, who are taking up the mantle of making sure others are more mindful of people in her situation. “I want to show everyone that we are not useless, that our lives are full of hope,” she said during the show’s second episode. “My wish is that everyone would understand this disease better. Forget-me-not, don’t forget me.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: A still frame from the reality series “Forget-Me-Not Café,” which premiered in late-April on Tencent’s streaming service. From @腾讯视频忘不了餐厅 on Weibo)