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    Old Age, New Stage: On China’s TikTok, the Elderly Find a Second Act

    As China grapples with a rapidly aging population, hundreds of new short video accounts have emerged detailing life in care homes. Many look to reshape perceptions and the stigma around elder care.

    Decades after she retired as a high school chemistry teacher, 90-year-old Yu Youfang has resumed her career. But this time, in a makeshift classroom set up in the cafeteria of an elderly care home in northern China, where the lessons lean more towards comedy than chemistry.

    As Yu teaches, her mischievous “students” — whose average age is 75 — fumble through experiments that often trigger explosive reactions or the release of “poisonous gasses.” Each class ends with a student carried away on a stretcher or theatrically wandering “in heaven.”

    The chaos is all scripted.

    Yu, her students, and the classroom are part of a viral series titled “Comedy at the Care Home” on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. With over 200 videos, the series showcases the life of the senior residents at the Jingya Nursing Home in the northern city of Tianjin, drawing millions of fans on Chinese social media.

    Jingya’s owner, 53-year-old Chen Yuan, tells Sixth Tone that the video series began merely as a fun, voluntary activity for the elderly, as well as a way to promote the nursing home while challenging societal stigmas associated with such facilities.

    “Sending the elderly to nursing homes used to be considered disrespectful,” he says. “But I want to change this perception. Nursing homes are not as scary as people think. These days, the elderly can live with dignity and happiness in care homes.”

    On Douyin, Jingya is just one of over 1,000 similar accounts featuring life in elderly care homes, each looking to reshape perceptions of senior care as China grapples with a rapidly aging population.

    According to official data, the proportion of individuals aged 65 and above grew from 9.4% in 2012 to 14.9% in 2022. The surge has led the government to prioritize the development of its “silver hair economy,” aiming to strengthen the supply of elderly products and services, according to a 2024 government report.

    Amid this demographic shift, the number of nursing homes in China has increased substantially, rising from 30,000 in 2018 to 41,000 in 2023, according to China’s Bureau of Statistics. However, only 3% of the elderly population choose to reside in such facilities, partly due to lingering social stigmas.

    Chen believes short video platforms such as Douyin are vital to bridge the gap between the nursing home and the outside world. “Short videos allow people from outside to see what nursing homes are like, and also show the charm of the residents to the outside world,” he explains.

    But for Jingya, the surge in social media popularity has proven costly. Instead of drawing more senior residents to its doors, four of its top Douyin stars — the very “students” who starred in the viral chemistry videos, including Chen’s own father — left last month.

    Since January this year, all four have been enticed to a larger, more exclusive care home in Tianjin, where they star in and create their own Douyin videos, underscoring the fierce competition in the elder care industry driven by social media influence.

    Despite the setback, Chen says he will continue creating new social media content, adding that the videos have benefited the residents by enhancing their lives and raising public awareness.

    Creating utopia

    On International Women’s Day, March 8, a special sketch was filmed at Jingya Nursing Home. Feng Yan, a key staff member affectionately known as the “director” by residents, led the production. As the main creator behind Jingya’s video series, Feng is responsible for everything from scriptwriting to filming and managing their social media accounts.

    The sketch featured five residents dressed as students, utilizing simple equipment: one Bluetooth microphone, one smartphone, and most importantly, a single piece of A4 paper scripted with several lines in 20-point font.

    “Though I’m old, I can still be a student,” says 87-year-old Liu Guoxia with a smile, positioning her walker at the set. She was among the first to arrive, eagerly straightening up as she awaited her cue from Feng.

    In honor of the occasion, Feng arranged for all three female “students” to sit in the front row of their makeshift classroom. The video, released the following day, quickly accumulated around 3,000 likes on Douyin.

    Liu is among the 70 elderly residents who call Jingya Nursing Home their home. Established in 2013 and nestled in a quiet residential area in the southwestern part of Tianjin, the facility provides care to seniors averaging around 75 years old.

    With monthly rates ranging from 3,290 to 6,000 yuan ($450 to $830), it operates with a mission beyond profit, says owner Chen, who previously worked in auto sales.

    Chen launched the short video account on Douyin in April 2023, shortly after his nephew, 29-year-old Chen Zhuo, who majored in Radio and Television Direction, joined the management team. Together with director Feng Yan, the duo explored a variety of content to kickstart Jingya’s content.

    They began by introducing novel items that the elderly residents had rarely encountered, such as jackfruit, ostrich eggs, and golf balls, capturing their reactions on film. In another early effort, Zhuo began teaching elderly residents trendy Chinese slang used by younger generations, including jimei (“sisters”), YYDS (“the greatest of all time”), and Versailles (“showing off”).

    “Filming these videos is not a task for us, nor just for the sake of filming. It’s a service provided by the nursing home to entertain the elderly,” Feng tells Sixth Tone.

    While Jingya’s videos have charmed millions of viewers with the residents’ endearing expressions and humorous mishaps, it was the chemistry lesson series that propelled them to internet fame.

    Blending humor with more serious themes like life and death, these videos particularly resonated with China’s younger audience, inspiring them with their light-hearted take on mortality.

    One popular comment on Douyin underscores this impact: “In Chinese culture, discussing death is often taboo for the elderly. However, Jingya’s seniors handle this topic with humor and creativity. They truly serve as role models for everyone.”

    According to Chen Zhuo, most of the short videos are titled “In a nursing home 50 years later,” designed to depict what life in a nursing home might look like for future generations.

    “It’s to show that when we move into a nursing home 50 years later, we can live as happily as these elderly people,” says Zhuo. “So the sketches I create and film are not something that happens in the real world, but rather a utopian world.”

    Behind the scenes

    Every one or two days, Jingya releases new content on Douyin, each typically attracting over 5,000 likes. According to Feng, their inspiration often comes from trendy topics and memes on social media, as well as uplifting messages found in books.

    Producing these snippets involves a swift but careful process: it usually takes about one hour to complete a video less than a minute long, from filming to editing. But given the challenges the “cast” faces in memorizing full lines, each video is shot sentence by sentence.

    “Sometimes the elderly take the filming seriously. For example, when Grandpa Xu (an 87-year-old resident) shoots, he sometimes says, ‘Oh, I forgot (my lines), let’s do it again,’” says Feng, adding that the process also serves as good memory practice for the residents.

    Despite their enthusiasm, most of the elderly participants do not own smartphones and are somewhat detached from the world of short videos, which, in today’s China, exceeds one billion users.

    “When we started, we didn’t quite understand the concept of filming a short video. We just did it for fun,” a resident named Wang Mingxun, 80, tells Sixth Tone.

    One of Jingya’s first residents to volunteer for video filming, Wang, a bus driver, retired from the logistics department of the Tianjin Earthquake Agency at age 55. In October 2022, he moved into Jingya with his two elderly sisters, reuniting the family after more than 60 years apart, partly to alleviate the pressures on his two daughters living in Japan.

    Unlike other residents, Wang doesn’t require constant care, allowing him to lead an active life within the facility. He says he’s open-minded and receptive to new ideas, but holds firm principles regarding the content of the videos he participates in.

    “I won’t film those that are purely comedic or disrespectful to the elderly, nor will I shoot any content that is insulting or mocking towards people with disabilities,” he asserts. In the videos, Wang often dons his favorite red beret, playing the role of a school principal who imparts positive messages to the audience.

    His active participation even inspired other residents, including his sisters and 63-year-old Wang Li — who initially hesitated to appear on camera — to join the video projects.

    “As the elderly gradually withdraw from society, their horizons naturally become narrower due to the lack of participation in social activities,” says Wang Li. “But by filming videos together, we can at least learn and broaden our horizons a bit.”

    The price of fame

    As Jingya’s short video account continues to grow, several residents are now easily recognizable to users online. They include the earnest chemistry teacher Yu, and the three “students,” the clever Wang Li, the cheerful Geng Fengru, 73, and Chen Yuan’s father, Jiawei, who plays the mischievous “student” reminiscent of Carl from the Pixar animated movie “Up.”

    The students, recognized by their English names — Alice, Bob, and Carl, respectively — have become favorites among younger netizens.

    Despite not being active on social media themselves, they are aware of their fame through domestic news coverage and appearances on China’s national television. This exposure has even allowed some to reconnect with long-lost friends.

    Jingya’s owner, Chen Yuan, says: “At least the outside world can see what the nursing home is really like, and society at large is also paying attention to nursing homes now.”

    He adds that an increasing number of nursing homes are now inspired to film and share the realities of their facilities and residents.

    Despite the surge in online traffic, Chen has resisted monetizing the platform through advertisements or livestreaming sales, common practices among influencers on domestic short video platforms.

    “We don’t know how to run such a business. And we don’t want to make money by exploiting elderly people,” explains Chen, emphasizing his commitment to keeping the videos focused on the daily lives of the seniors.

    Yet, the rising popularity of Jingya’s videos brought unintended consequences: four key cast members, including Chen’s own father and Wang Li, have now moved to a competing high-end facility in Tianjin. The most recent departure, Geng Fengru, also known as Alice, left at the end of January.

    The shifts began after Zhuo, Chen’s nephew who helped create content, was dismissed from Jingya in November 2023 following disagreements over the video shooting plans for the elderly.

    Zhuo, however, landed a similar job at Chunxuanmao — a high-end nursing home with more than 30 facilities across the country — and soon after, several popular cast members left for the same care home.

    According to Chen Yuan, their departure to a rival care home, particularly that of his father, has strained their relationship. “I sometimes regret starting the short video account. If I hadn’t done this, maybe my relationship with my father wouldn’t have reached this point today,” he rues.

    But Feng, now the sole director at Jingya, remains optimistic. “Our main focus is the home rather than highlighting any specific elderly person. We’re just making videos for the elderly, not turning each into a star,” he says.

    When netizens ask him about the absence of the four main characters in recent videos, Feng simply explains that they left for another facility.

    Asked about his leaving, Chen Zhuo insists on remaining tightlipped. “I feel there’s no need for a response… it may bring about some unnecessary public discussions into our lives,” he says. Chunxuanmao declined to comment on the issue.

    Chen Zhuo sees the changes as an opportunity for growth. Since leaving, he’s launched a new Douyin account called “Spring in the Nursing Home,” which has quickly gained over 600,000 followers in two months across multiple social media platforms.

    “We will continue with the previous content, but there will be some new thoughts for everyone. That is, our content will become more diverse as we speak up for different groups of people,” Chen Zhuo says, insisting that this is a chance to perhaps even surpass the previous account.

    Despite the setbacks, current and former residents of Jingya tell Sixth Tone that filming short videos has become an integral part of their lives. While they continue lively performances in the videos, off camera they say they still face the challenges of aging and illness.

    “Running a nursing home is not easy. You have to deal with all kinds of trivial matters and face life or death situations,” says Chen Yuan, who’s witnessed the death of more than 10 senior residents at Jingya over the years.

    Most residents, however, manage death with calm acceptance. For instance, 87-year-old Liu Guoxia has already picked a grave for herself, and says her children can just pick her body up from the nursing home when she dies.

    “They are not afraid of death, but they’re afraid of being forgotten and abandoned,” says Feng, adding that the short videos help document their lives.

    Currently, Jingya lacks a new Carl, Alice, and Bob. Wang Mingxun and his sister, Liu Guoxia, regularly feature in videos, but online, they are yet to adopt distinctive nicknames like their predecessors.

    At around 5 p.m. on a Friday in March, the usual filming space in Jingya’s dining hall resumed its primary function. Residents trickle in, anticipating the evening meal.

    “It’s mealtime again,” Wang murmurs to his sister, who suffers from cerebellar atrophy, as he guides her to a seat and reminds her to take her medicine.

    Additional reporting: Lü Xiaoxi; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Director Feng Yan working with residents at the Jingya Nursing Home, Tianjin, March 2024. Ding Rui/Sixth Tone)