At a certain point, getting older stops being fun. While we once dreamed of being old enough to stay up late or watch R-rated movies, aging quickly becomes more about aching bones and mixed-up thoughts. Each passing year brings new pains rather than privileges.
While modern medical technology has gotten better at fighting those nagging issues, there are some things that even the best doctors can’t fix. That’s why one man in Taiwan took unprecedented action to fight against an invisible threat tearing through his community.
Wu Tsun-hsien was living a quiet life in the rural Ruan Chiao village, tucked in the mountains of Taiwan. What seemed like a serene setting was actually being ravaged by something devastating.
Ruan Chiao village still occupies the same misty hilltop where it has always stood, and Wu lives in his traditional familial home. From there, he’s witnessed the rest of the community dwindle away.
See, over the years, the village’s population has aged; at 55-years-old, Wu was one of the younger residents. Nearly everyone left was isolated and lonely. But the village wasn’t the only place that was struggling.
The entire island of Taiwan was being ravaged by two separate issues, both of which have hit the village hard. But what forces could be decimating both large cities and tiny rural hamlets?
The first was a rapidly aging population. Last year, for example, only 180,000 babies were born on the entire island. And while that’s not ideal in isolation, it’s even deadlier when combined with another factor.
Taiwan is also losing jobs and residents to mainland China. Ruan Chiao village used to make paper temple offerings; another town would sew Barbie doll clothes. But those jobs now take place in factories in another country.
Those factors have combined to drain the populations of rural villages, condemning their aging residents to a life of loneliness. Even Wu’s own children have moved away, first to attend university and then to find jobs.
Times Higher Education
Wu chose to stay in the village, living with his wife and her parents. They own his ancestral home, a couple of vegetable plots, and little else. Unable to abandon his family’s property, Wu was stuck.
Faced with a dying village and increasing isolation, Wu knew he only had one option to save himself and his entire community. He gathered his supplies and began to do the only thing he could.
Wu started painting a mural on the edge of town. Before long, a painted wall turned into a building; a building turned into a block. Maybe, he thought, if he couldn’t stop people leaving, he could lure them back.
Slowly, the plan started to work. As word of the art spread, young people began to visit the village. The murals, it turned out, were the perfect background for Instagram photos!
John Anderson/ Austin Chronicle
With just a few cans of paint, Wu had created a tourist destination in the mountains of Taiwan. And while his “Graffiti Village” could have been raking in the profits, he was looking for something greater than a fortune.
Rather than profits, Wu wanted to help the village’s aging residents combat their loneliness by meeting new people. “[The seniors] want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss,” his wife Fan explained.
Wu’s original art was simple, primarily containing traditional good luck symbols; it seems like those definitely worked! But, over time, he started adding more important messages to the murals on his own home.
One portion of his home now features a post-apocalyptic scene, showing what will happen if the world fails to address climate change. Other sections of graffiti, however, speak to the present reality of life in the village.
Another section of the house represents “society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television.” But those forces seem inescapable, especially today. Could Wu’s murals really change anyone’s mind about technology?
Well, his art started a trend in the opposite direction, with a few other “graffiti villages” springing up. More photographers were coming into the mountains. The hordes of tech-using millennials seemed uninspired by the true message of his paintings.
And as you might assume, most of Wu’s visitors were looking for a cool, artistic experience rather than a conversation with a random senior citizen. Still, while most only took pictures, a few started to make deeper connections…
Evelyn Sun, who hosts art and food events in the capital city of Taipei, visited Ruan Chiao village with a few friends. They took some pictures and met Wu, who did something they never expected.
He invited the tourists into his family home, where he cooked them a traditional meal of vegetables from his garden and eggs boiled with a mixture of secret herbs. The conversation was even better than the meal.
“I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society,” Sun explained. And those paintings inspired her to take a vow for the future.
She will continue to visit villages, not for photos, but to get to know their residents. “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them,” she said.
Another senior in China would’ve loved a trip to Graffiti Village, too. Han Zicheng seemed like your typical grandfather enjoying his retirement in Tianjin. He had been through a great deal in his 85-year life. He was looking to relax.
Yan Cong/ Washington Post
He was born in 1932 and was a teenager when Mao Zedong came to power. Despite the social and political turmoil that followed, he took steps to ensure he turned into a responsible adult.
For instance, he found a job in a factory, got married, and had children, all while taking night classes, so he could find more work. He and his wife raised their sons as the Cultural Revolution kicked into high gear. But his story was not over.
Han eventually used his education to get a job in a scientific research institute and, over the next few years, saved up for his retirement. However, something was killing him that no one could see — but he could.
There was no traditional Chinese medicine that could solve the problem, so Han had to take matters into his own hands. One day, he searched his apartments for the tools he needed.
Using scraps of white paper and a blue pen, Han began to write. He quickly created some flyers and began posting them around the neighborhood, hoping that he could find a literal lifesaver. But what did his ad say?
Han, as it turns out, was not in any physical distress. He did not desperately need an organ donor or a life-saving surgery. Instead, this 85-year old grandpa was looking for something different: adoption.
Yan Cong/ Washington Post
“I won’t go to a nursing home,” he wrote. “My hope is that a kindhearted person or family will adopt me, nourish me through old age and bury my body when I’m dead.”
After posting flyers around his neighborhood, Han returned to his empty apartment. All he could do was sit, looking out the window, hoping help would arrive. Still, he took solace in the fact that his problem was not unique.
Yan Cong/ Washington Post
See, given China’s massive population and improving standards of life, more and more people are living into old age. And while that may seem great on paper, it’s causing further social issues.
China’s infamous ‘one-child’ policy has left more and more seniors with fewer children and grandchildren to take care of them. The government has even had to intervene in an unexpected way to combat their growing isolation.
Diego Azubel/ EFE
In 2013, the Chinese authorities passed the “Elderly Rights Law,” which mandated that children visit their aging parents to ensure their spiritual needs are met. Despite that, no one was visiting Han. At least, not yet.
GAO ERQIANG/ China Daily
Shortly after Han posted his flyers, they went viral. Images were shared on Twitter; a website dispatched a film crew to visit him. Before long, his phone was constantly ringing. But he wasn’t satisfied.
Nikkei Asian Review
For all the interest in his story, Han kept running into dead ends. While he received offers for ‘adoption,’ he turned down those that he felt were beneath him. Han was hanging onto the hope that his perfect adoptive family was out there.
Frustrated, he began to complain about his quality of life. The soup at the local senior center, for example, wasn’t as good as what he ate in his youth. Before long, his prospective families grew frustrated with his attitude.
During the winter, he rang a business called the Beijing Love Delivery Hotline to complain about his loneliness. He also kept in touch with at least one student who answered his flyer. But, in March, the communication stopped.
That was because Han had died, leaving only his fading apartment behind. And while it may have brought his soul peace, death did not bring an end to his loneliness.
Yan Cong/ Washington Post
Despite his new found fame, Han’s death went unnoticed. The local neighborhood watch committee didn’t know he died for two weeks. Several of his neighbors said they stopped seeing him in the halls but never thought to check on him.
Sim Chi Yin/ New York Times
Han’s greatest fear, the one he was trying to escape in his final months, was dying alone in his bedroom, leaving his bones behind to be found later. Slowly, the painful details of his final hours came to light.
Han managed to call someone before he died. While that person’s identity was never confirmed, he or she got Han to the hospital. He hadn’t died in his own bed and, most importantly, he hadn’t died alone.
While Han’s story took place in China, loneliness, especially among seniors, is a universal issue. With people living longer and longer, there’s a lesson we all need to learn about people we might have written off or forgotten.
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