Colorful sweatshirts, baggy jeans, black-frame sunglasses, bright-colored caps and low-top skateboard shoes.
A hip-hop band of young people? Nope. It’s a group of elderly women – at an average age of 85 – who were somewhat of a hit with netizens when a video of them dancing to the theme song of a popular variety show went viral. The women came to be called “rainbow grannies.”
I am visiting the Yangpu District Social Welfare Institution where the grannies live. The activity today is not singing or dancing; it’s posing for photos that emulate the style of pin-up girls in yuefengpai paintings on Shanghai calendars during the Republic of china era (1912-49). The paintings usually featured popular singers, movie stars and legendary beauties from Chinese literary classics.
I meet Xu Guilan, 95, who is sitting in a wheelchair and excited about the activity.
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE
“I am starting to feel young again,” she tells me.
The nursing home schedules an array of activities aimed at letting the elderly express themselves, have fun and enrich their lives.
“Shanghai calendar girls reflected the charm of local women,” institute deputy director Qiao Yihao tells me to explain the day’s activity.
The grannies who will betaking part in the activity are selecting qipao, or traditional
chinese body-fitting dresses, to wear as they wait to be made up by a professional cosmetician.
Xu picks a black qipao adorned with red flowers. With pearl earrings and necklace, a black gauze headdress, arched eyebrows, rosy blush and red lipstick, Xu looks both demure and bashful in her elegance.
“It’s the first time I have worn qipao,” she tells me. “I wasn’t even dressed this beautifully when I got married.”
In order to feel really dressed to the nines, Chen Xiufeng, 93, bought pantyhose for the first time in her life, selected a stylish handbag and decided to wear a bra for the first time in years.
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE
“When I was 12, my mother made me a fuchsia-colored qipao,” says chen. “I wore it on the first day of the Chinese New Year, then my mother immediately hid it away. I wasn’t allowed to wear it except on occasions, like attending wedding banquets or visiting relatives.”
Wearing a curly wig and fluttering a bamboo fan, Chen says the group of grannies like to call themselves “old beauties.”
Chen says she stopped eating rice for a while to slim down for the photos. She admits she has put on 9 kilos after living seven years in the stress-free environment of the home.
The “little sister” of the group is Sun Xuemei, 76, who once served in the air force. No wonder she stays in good shape, with a straight back. Her qipao, slit up to the thighs, beautifully hugs the curves of her body.
“It turns out that I can still be beautiful,” says Sun. “As I get older, I’ve become less confident. But this activity gives me a sense of rejuvenation.”
Established in 1988, the Yangpu District Social Welfare Institution is home to 735 elderly people. Its residents include 273 people in their 90s and 13 centenarians. It is the largest comprehensive public nursing home in the city center.
Belying the stereotype of nursing home residents as forgotten, unhappy people, the residents of this home lead happy, busy lives.
Nearly every resident has a mobile phone.
Before our interview, Shan Yanhui, 86 , shows me a photo she took as part of her “homework” for a class on how to use mobiles. She asks me what I think of it. Quite nice!
According to Xu Lijiao, who works in social services at the home, the phone classes teach residents how to text, use Wechat, take photos, shoot videos, make an online hospital appointment and use Shanghai QR codes.
“I am good at using Taobao now,” Shan says proudly. “Although I don’t buy clothes online, I feel happy just browsing. I also know how to sing karaoke on my phone.”
Some 18 activity groups – including painting, gardening, singing, reading, movies, fitness and calligraphy – are available at the nursing home.
“I think this place is even better than my old home,” says Shan. “I used to suffer from osteoporosis and had to walk with a stick. But now, I no longer use it.”
“We are so busy sometimes that we even don’t have time to check our phones,” says Sun.
Sun does volunteer work in the home’s small convenience shop. She said she is shattering the old concept of the elderly as “takers, never givers.”
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE
Social worker Xu, who was born in 1991, says she likes being with the older generation.
“Every day is precious for them,” she said. “We make sure they don’t miss out on any festivals.”
There was even a fete to celebrate Children’s Day in June. The residents reveled in childhood memories by blowing bubbles, throwing sand bags and playing a fishing game.
The nursing home highlights the efforts being made to address Shanghai’s aging population. Over a third of the city’s permanent residents are 60 years or older, according to the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau.
According to deputy home director Qiao, the government provides financial support for the facility and has linked it to a school in the southwestern provincial capital of Hunan where professional talent are trained to care for the elderly.
“Life in a nursing home is not just about having three meals a day,” says Qiao. “We know that more activities entail some risks, but we would rather take the risk to enhance the quality of life and mental health of our residents. We create an environment that is colorful and respects them.”