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The Third Act in Life for the Elderly: Rock YeNai

The elderlies engage in the society through “Storytelling Troupe.” Photo courtesy of Rock YeNai

How to Still Have Fun at an Old Age?

Are you scared of getting old? According to the statistics, the number of people aged 65 years or over is expected to take up 20% of the population in Taiwan by 2025. In other words, one in five people will be an elderly, which will officially turn Taiwan into a hyper-aged society. How would this impact our lives? The retirement age is 65 according to Taiwan’s Labor Standard Law, and 80 years is the average life expectancy in Taiwan. According to a survey on the ideal retirement lifestyle by PCA Life Assurance Co Ltd., close to 70% of the people hope to be able to retire before the age of 60, and if people do retire at 60, they get to enjoy about 20 years in retirement.1

However, this survey focuses on pension and expenses (medical insurance, travel and leisure, retirement and assisted living facility) without paying attention to what Taiwanese people’s life after retirement could tangibly look like. Perhaps, some may choose to retire early and take on another job, or some may prefer to do volunteer work or enjoy quality family time with their grandchildren. Some may become caretakers at home, growing old in the same way as their parents. Or, is it possible to get old with intergenerational learning, as we see the entire society instead of each household as a comprehensive unit?

“Rock YeNai” (Ye means grandfather, and Nai means grandmother in Mandarin Chinese) provides imaginative ways to see old age, with illustrated books offered to people over the age of 65 and encouraging them to remain an active member of society in an organic and ongoing manner.

How to Co-create Value for Old Age? Illustrated Book Co-reading and Storytelling Troupe

The founder of Rock YeNai, LIN Tsung-Hsien. Photo by HSU Ping

The founder of Rock YeNai, LIN Tsung-Hsien (nicknamed Chocolate) graduated from the Department of Applied Drama and Theater of National Taiwan University of Arts, currently a PhD candidate for Psychology and Counseling at the Department of Education of National Chengchi University. He founded My Story Island in 2005 to combine theater and education in a storytelling house. The house closed in 2015 after 10 years due to Taiwan’s declining birth rate. From 2015 to 2017, LIN was a storytelling trainer working with elderlies at the YS Foundation. He assisted the elderlies to develop interpersonal interaction skills, and it was during this experience that he got the chance to work with older people for the first time, which sparked his attention in issues related to old age.

He noticed that only 20% of the senior citizens in Taiwan require long-term care; in other words, the other 80% are healthy, and not all elderlies suffer from dementia or physical disabilities. In 2016, people over 65 years old that have committed suicide in Taiwan took up a shocking 1/4 of the overall number of suicide victims, and depression was the main cause behind these suicides. Hence how to improve the mental health of the elderly, how to make the old people re-engage with the society and how to create opportunities for multigenerational communication to have wonderful lives of old age have also been his focal points.

Driven by his passion for education and storytelling, as well as an imagination of rocking old age, LIN founded the social business, Rock YeNai, in 2017, to create an organic way for the elderly to integrate into the society. Working in Taiwan’s increasingly aging society, the company aims “to invigorate the elderly human resources, to give purpose to the elders, for them to retire but not be dismissed.” Its core approach is based on the idea of “mindfulness,” and with activities such as “Illustrated Book Co-reading” and “Storytelling Troupe,” elderlies between 55 to 85 years old are able to partake in various training of skill sets and mental health exercises. The elderlies are able to gain a sense of self-worth and social engagement as well as co-creating with the younger generation through the storytelling. The initial objective was to train senior citizens to tell stories, but the endeavor has opened up a friendly social business model, which first focuses on how to resolve social issues and then creates social impact, seeking to make society a better place while being profitable at the same time.

“Illustrated Book Co-reading” is a paid educational course that generates profit for the company. It offers a platform for people 50 years and older to open up their imaginations for aging. Each class is three hours long, and each course consists of three classes that are offered in a month, with six illustrated books read together in class. LIN pays meticulous attention when selecting the books, picking books that cover various topics including growth, creativity, death, and how to grow old in a joyful manner. Some of the books he chooses include What Happens Next?, which deals with the topic of death and is initially regarded as a taboo due to its topic by some elderlies, and Ali in the Cloud, which leads to conversations on how to design one’s own tomb, and The Quiltmaker’s Gift, which highlights the fact that we are not turning old but growing old. Other books include Mr. Alzheimer and Ours qui lit. How the stories are transformed and applied is a process that the course focuses on, with the illustrated books used to fulfill the following three goals: to remove the stereotype that elderlies are quite nagging, to encourage the old to talk about dreams and be open-minded for new things, and to help them let go and diminish the depression and worries.

“Storytelling Troupe” is a social participation project for the elderlies, offering training on leadership skills through games, physical development, and imagination development, which takes the elderlies out of their comfort zones and for them to interact with people and to also strengthen their mental and physical well-being. There are currently six storytelling troupes, and a leader is assigned to each group. The leaders (business partners) are people between the age of 20 to 40, and each troupe consists of seven elderly members. Each troupe is guided by the leader to partake in Rock YeNai’s storytelling events. The events are open to the general public in any age group, and the objective is to open up people’s imagination for old age. “Illustrated Book Co-reading” and “Storytelling Troupe” are different in that one re-imagines the world through illustrated books, and the other creates the worlds in the books through performances. A foundation is provided for the participants to transform and take on different roles, as they evolve from reading together to telling stories. They are able to learn how to become a storytelling performer throughout the process, without having to play a particular character but just to be able to convey the stories depicted in the illustrated books. This process of becoming a storyteller usually requires a period of six months. Each troupe leader would give critiques and notes to the grandmothers and grandfathers after each performance. A complimentary bimonthly training is also provided for an entire day for the regular participants. LIN mentions that his intention is not to train professional performers but to train the elders to become more flexible and nimble and for them to acquire some professional skills for storytelling. The elders are also paid NTD 300 for each 20-minute storytelling performance they provide. To be a part of the storytelling troupe is not something that is mandatory, and members could choose to resign from the group at any time. “These elderlies are all very courageous,” LIN says, “we can imagine how daunting it must be to stand before an audience of various age groups and to take in their positive and negative reactions and feedbacks.”

The members of Rock YeNai performed in Playful Seniors: The performance in the Field Research Seminar of Senior Theatre. Photo by HSU Ping

Playful Seniors: The performance in the Field Research Seminar of Senior Theatre

The normally one-hour long performance was condensed into half an hour on the day of the workshop “Playful Seniors” in C-LAB, with one of the team leaders leading three grandmothers (Granny Happy, Granny Butterfly, and Granny Baby). They began by introducing themselves, and they then shared with the audience some of the experiences they’ve had as the result of aging, including funny moments of mishearing words because of their difficulty in hearing. The leader then divided the workshop participants into three groups, and a grandmother was assigned to each group for story time. The illustrated book read in the group I was Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, and it was read by Granny Baby with lively gestures and poses. After the book was read, the participants were asked to use their bodies to act out some scenarios, including “crossing a river,” with the grandma acting like a crocodile to block the audience from crossing the river; “walking on a cliff,” with everyone standing in a line to walk on a scary cliff (the participants are shaken both lightly and aggressively to simulate the experience of walking on a cliff); and also “passing through a tunnel,” with everyone joined together to form a bridge to pass through the purposely-made-low tunnel. Through these three scenarios, the participants were able to form an interactive connection with their own bodies.

During the comprehensive discussions, Granny Happy mentioned that the first time she met LIN was in the storytelling training at YS Foundation, where she told stories for kindergarten children. She said telling stories to preschoolers is quite different from having adults in the audience. Kids are very pure and innocent, while it is more difficult to see what the adults are really thinking. This was her first time telling a story to adults, and she felt a tremendous sense of pressure before the workshop. However, we were still able to feel her sense of collectedness and confidence. The group leader also talked about her experience with leading her troupe of seven senior members. She talked about how she really admired their courage, and the stories help them to contact different people. Their audience is usually made up of parents and their children, and the storytelling events are usually held at public spaces, such as coffee shops, bookstores, or department stores. The goal of Rock YeNai is to give the elderlies real opportunities to connect with people at real places and to remove the stereotypes and labels that people may have for the old.

More to Come in the Future…

LIN never asks these elders about their backgrounds or their private matters. Some of them are retired successful businesspeople, who are also intellectuals with privileged financial and social status. After retiring from the workforce and from caretaker roles of their families, they are able to embark on the third act of their life at Rock YeNai. LIN guides these elders through a positive psychological approach, encouraging them to learn together and to grow old together, and for them to love themselves more. When comparing his past experience working with children with the experience with the elders, LIN feels that the way society perceives the two is quite different, with Rock YeNai receiving more recognition and support. LIN believes that senior citizens should return to society and interact with different generations. It is not just about readjusting the way people regard their lives at an old age; it is also about caring for everyone and everything. To make improvements of hardware and software to accommodate older people, to shift social perceptions and to break stereotypes on the elderly are some of the issues that LIN continues to focus on, as he aims to make society better, healthier, and friendlier.

The current business model of Rock YeNai does not rely on government subsidization. In addition to receiving support from corporations that book their performances (mainly the illustrated book co-reading), it also designs a wool felting craft class recently to help enhance elder people’s sense of focus. On the wall of Rock YeNai’s office is a wall of dreams covered with many post-it notes. The notes are about future plans for Rock YeNai, including co-reading, story time, illustrated book house of post-adolescence, old fairytale seminar/theater, forums, classes for the elderly, association, apartment building and more. There are some that have already been fulfilled, as seen with the co-reading and storytelling projects, and some are being planned, such as the association at the stage of recruiting. The goals of Rock YeNai are for the future, among which is creating illustrated books by the elderlies themselves as one of the vision of the illustrated book house of post-adolescence. LIN sees the elderlies as people that are full of stories, and he also hopes to co-create with the grandfathers and the grandmothers to publish illustrated books about the stories of Rock YeNai in the future.

SUN Zhong-Ying.“夢想退休年齡是幾歲?七成民眾希望六十歲前就退休” (Dream Retirement Age? 70% of People Wish to Retire By 60). United Daily News, 13 June 2018.
LO ChienAn art critic, editor and member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (Taiwan), , LO’s research covers the issues concerning contemporary images, space, performance, mobility and corporeal perception.
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