The new tem­ples of a twi­light age

In China, care of the el­derly is shift­ing its fo­cus from the phys­i­cal to the spir­i­tual, re­port Sun Li in Shax­ian, Fujian prov­ince and Zheng Jinran in Yan­jiao, He­bei prov­ince.

China Daily (Canada) - - FOCUS -

Guan He­hua never imag­ined that a visit to Jixiang Tem­ple in Shax­ian county, Fujian prov­ince, would re­sult in her bid­ding farewell to nor­mal fam­ily life and mov­ing to the tem­ple to live with 100 other se­niors.

“The easy ac­cess to Bud­dhist su­tras and daily prayers al­lows el­derly peo­ple like me to find in­ner peace, which we were not able to achieve at home,” said the 78-year-old who be­gan liv­ing at the tem­ple in 2010 and is the only Bud­dhist in her fam­ily.

Sit­u­ated on a ver­dant moun­tain and nur­tured by fresh springs, Jixiang Tem­ple is the first and so far only tem­ple in Fujian to op­er­ate as a nurs­ing home. Al­though 120 beds are avail­able, there are only 100 se­nior res­i­dents, whose ages range from 71 to 102. The ac­com­mo­da­tion is shared, with two or three peo­ple to each 10 to 15-square-me­ter room equipped with an air con­di­tioner, a pri­vate toi­let and a hot wa­ter boiler.

To en­able the res­i­dents to look af­ter each other, com­par­a­tive young­sters are paired with older in­hab­i­tants, ac­cord­ing to Shi Nengqing, 77, a se­nior nun who acts as the nurs­ing home’s ad­min­is­tra­tor.

Be­fore mov­ing to the tem­ple, Guan lived alone in the county of Shax­ian be­cause her sons had moved away on busi­ness. She de­scribed the tem­ple as “heaven”, and said she can im­merse her­self in Bud­dhism while her sons are con­fi­dent in the knowl­edge that she’s be­ing cared for cor­rectly.

Yin Suqing, a 78-year-old who moved to the home in 2008, ex­pressed her sat­is­fac­tion with life at the tem­ple. “Be­fore I moved in, I dared not per­form morn­ing prayers. Al­though my fam­ily sup­ported my re­li­gious be­liefs, I was wor­ried I would dis­turb them,” she said.

Shi said most of the res­i­dents are Bud­dhists who are pur­su­ing in­ner peace in later life and gain­ing a spir­i­tual sat­is­fac­tion the ma­te­rial world can’t pro­vide.

Neigh­bor­ing prov­inces, such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu, are home to at least 21 tem­ples­cum-nurs­ing homes. Al­though they mainly pro­vide ac­com­mo­da­tion for Bud­dhists, they are also home to many el­derly non-believ­ers, ac­cord­ing to the sta­tis­tics of State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Re­li­gious Af­fairs.

Other prov­inces, such as Sichuan and Shanxi, will adopt a sim­i­lar model in the fu­ture. Ag­ing pop­u­la­tion

China has an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion; in 2012, those aged 60 and older ac­counted for 14.3 per­cent, reach­ing 194 mil­lion of the 1.34 bil­lion to­tal at the time, and by the end of this year, the num­ber will ex­ceed 200 mil­lion, ac­count­ing for 14.8 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the China Na­tional Com­mit­tee on Ag­ing.

Some ex­perts said more nurs­ing homes are needed to pro­vide ba­sic phys­i­cal ser­vices for se­niors, but also stressed the im­por­tance of greater em­pha­sis on the spir­i­tual and psy­cho­log­i­cal needs of the el­derly.

“The gov­ern­ment should en­cour­age nurs­ing homes to pro­vide more diver­si­fied ser­vices for them,” said Du Peng, a pro­fes­sor at the In­sti­tute of Geron­tol­ogy at Ren­min Univer­sity of China in Bei­jing, who added that it is a sign of great progress that nurs­ing homes have spa­ces in which se­niors can pray.

He said a va­ri­ety of or­ga­ni­za­tions should be en­cour­aged to build nurs­ing homes for se­niors, in­clud­ing re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions, but it is vi­tal that they abide by the reg­u­la­tions in terms of con­struc­tion and man­age­ment.

Jixiang Tem­ple em­ploys two as­sis­tants and a cook to help care for the old peo­ple. The monthly per-per­son cost for food, util­i­ties and med­i­cal care, is ap­prox­i­mately 1,000 yuan ($163), which is cov­ered by gov­ern­ment fund­ing and do­na­tions from busi­nesses and pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als, said Shi.

“Most of the res­i­dents are Bud­dhists. Ini­tially, there were a few who didn’t be­lieve, but they all turned to Bud­dha af­ter liv­ing in the home for a short while,” she said.

Af­ter al­most three years, Guan He­hua is still proud of her de­ci­sion. “I was right to move. The home is a place of har­mony and kind­ness. We have a re­ally warm-hearted ad­min­is­tra­tor. At din­ner­time, Shi Nengqing is never in a hurry to eat. She takes a head count and if any­one is ab­sent, she goes to the dorm to check on them,” Guan said, plac­ing her palms to­gether in a Bud­dhist ges­ture of re­spect.

In terms of Bud­dhist prac­tice, Guan re­gards the rou­tine in the tem­ple as “highly sys­tem­atic”.

“Not ev­ery tem­ple in the county holds morn­ing prayers, but at Jixiang Tem­ple it’s taken very se­ri­ously. We pray ev­ery morn­ing, come rain or shine.”

The regime has been adapted to take the ages of the res­i­dents into ac­count, ac­cord­ing to Yin.

“In some tem­ples, morn­ing prayers be­gin at 3:30 am, but here it’s 4:30 am in def­er­ence to the ad­vanced age of some res­i­dents. It’s all very con­sid­er­ate,” she said.

“We have three dishes and a soup. The menu changes ev­ery day, so it’s a lit­tle like a self-ser­vice cafe­te­ria where you can eat as much as you like.”

When she’s not prac­tic­ing Bud­dhism, Yin is free to take walks, ex­er­cise or read and med­i­tate in her shared room.

“Ev­ery­thing is free here. The ex­pe­ri­ence has filled a spir­i­tual void, so how could I ever feel un­happy here?” she asked. Fam­ily for­tunes

Cao Jinji is one of the res­i­dent who turned to Bud­dhism af­ter liv­ing in the home for awhile.

The 93-year-old said her veg­e­tar­ian diet and Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tions have given her a sense of in­ner peace and she has been amazed by her daugh­ter-in-law’s change of at­ti­tude to­ward her.

Cao said she moved to the home more than a decade ago, be­cause her son and daugh­terin-law paid her lit­tle re­spect and of­ten quar­reled with her. Her daugh­ter-in-law hadn’t called her “mother” for sev­eral decades.

“But, one Spring Fes­ti­val when my daugh­ter-in-law vis­ited me here, her ex­pres­sion be­trayed her sur­prise. She had never thought that peo­ple would treat an el­derly stranger so well,” Cao said.

“She felt guilty and asked me to stay with the fam­ily for a short time”, she said, adding that she ini­tially thought the of­fer was some kind of “plot”.

Af­ter Shi as­sured Cao that would be picked up three days later, the el­derly lady paid a short visit to her old home. Her daugh­ter-in-law treated her with re­spect and even started call­ing her “mother” once again.

“Al­though our re­la­tion­ship has soft­ened, I still pre­fer to live in the nurs­ing home be­cause this place was the key fac­tor that changed my daugh­ter-in­law’s at­ti­tude,” Cao said.

Li Laifeng, a re­tired doc­tor at a hos­pi­tal in Shax­ian, has served as the home’s vol­un­tary med­i­cal of­fi­cer since it opened in 1999.

A Bud­dhist her­self, Li of­fered her ser­vices in ac­cor­dance with the con­cept of mercy high­lighted by the re­li­gion. She be­lieves that the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment pro­motes longevity.

“The tem­ple sits on th­ese green hills. The air is fresh and the wa­ter is clean. Those fac­tors make a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to the good health of the res­i­dents,” she said.

Li con­ducts check­ups on the res­i­dents ev­ery week and said most of the oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans re­tain their men­tal fac­ul­ties, and she usu­ally only has to treat com­mon ail­ments such as coughs and the oc­ca­sional bout of flu. If a res­i­dent be­comes se­ri­ously ill, they are sent to the county hos­pi­tal.

At present the home’s sick­bay con­sists of just one room and Li is hop­ing to find more space for med­i­cal care to al­low her to iso­late pa­tients with in­fec­tious con­di­tions, such as flu, and pre­vent the spread of the ill­ness.

Jixiang Tem­ple was es­tab­lished by the Shi Zhaochan, the ab­bot, as a re­sult of his fall­ing ill. In 1994, he was di­ag­nosed with bone can­cer, which the doc­tor said was in­cur­able.

In great pain, the ab­bot prayed ev­ery day and pledged to build a nurs­ing home for 100 peo­ple if he was cured. A few months later, the can­cer mirac­u­lously dis­ap­peared and so Shi Zhaochan and Shi Nengqing trav­eled to Shang­hai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong to raise funds and ful­fill his prom­ise, a process that took sev­eral years.

“Shi Nengqing and I are get­ting older, so I plan to ask monks from other cities to come to the county and run the nurs­ing home. We are plan­ning to ex­pand and so we are rais­ing funds to pave a smooth path for our suc­ces­sors,” said Shi Zhaochan. Con­tact the au­thors at sunli@chi­ and zhengjin­ran@chi­nadaily.


Li Laifeng con­ducts a rou­tine checkup on an el­derly woman at Jixiang Tem­ple in Fujian prov­ince.


Chen Pin­gling (left), 82, sings Rus­sian songs with his neigh­bors at Yanda In­ter­na­tional Health City in the Yan­jiao dis­trict of Sanhe, He­bei prov­ince.

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