慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
I’m Old and Live Alone, But I'm Not Lonely

In Taiwan, the rapid aging of our society has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the numberof people living alone. How to live alone well has become an issue which many people in Taiwan are facing today.

Wu Da-you, 92, lives alone in a rented studio apartment in Taipei. People living alone in Taiwan, one fifth of whom are elderly, have grown rapidly in number.

Taiwan is projected to become a super-aged society by the year 2025, which means that in just eight years, one fifth of the population will be at least 65 years of age.

Early this year, the number of people aged 65 and above in Taiwan exceeded that of people under 14 for the first time. Because people are living longer and having fewer children, the island’s population is aging at a speed unequaled by any other country in the world. In less than a decade, younger people will find themselves surrounded by more and more older people.

One third of the households in Taiwan now consist of just a single occupant. If we correlate the above two phenomena, we can conclude that old people who live alone now comprise one fifth of the one-person households in Taiwan. In other words, one out of every five people who live alone is 65 or above.

As Taiwanese society ages, and as the number of people living alone also grows rapidly, how to live alone well has become an issue that many people are having to face. 

People who are old and live alone don't have to live lonely lives.

Staying socially connected

An increasing number of middle-aged and older people are living alone because of various factors: a decision to stay single, the loss of one’s spouse, divorce, or the inability of children to live with and support their parents. While young people living alone might conjure up positive images of being free and independent, older people living on their own seems another matter. Lonely and desolate are often the words that come to mind for this group of people.

However, this is purely a stereotype. Being an older person living alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely and desolate.

Japanese author Takanori Fujita encourages people to save up money and strengthen their social networks to secure a better old age. His opinion is that while money is indispensable if you want to get by in this world, staying socially connected is even more conducive to a happy old age.

Studies have shown that good relationships help us to be healthier and happier and that loneliness leads to opposite outcomes. “We human beings are social creatures with an emotional need for relationships and positive connections to others,” said Robyn Skiff, a medical home self-management program coordinator at the Community Health Improvement department at the University of Vermont Medical Center. “We’re not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation. Social connections not only give us pleasure, they also influence our wellbeing.”

Living alone or not, an old person can join a volunteer group, a religious group, or even a class to keep their social connections alive, thus adding new stimulation to their lives and reactivating their passion for life. It’s like becoming a member of a big family.

There are many older people among Tzu Chi volunteers, including many older people who live alone. They are not all healthy or financially well-off, but by joining a volunteer group and giving their time to serve others, they stay socially active and connected. As a result, their lives take on new meaning, purpose, and vitality. Instead of hanging around the house all day long wondering how they are going to fill the long hours stretching ahead of them, they try to contribute what they can while engaging in meaningful, lasting relationships with others.

In the following articles, we look at three older people who live alone but who are far from lonely. They share with us how they make their latter years as fulfilling as they can, and thus help us rethink old age. They demonstrate to us that they haven’t really grown old—they’ve just ripened. 

Life can become difficult for older people living alone, especially those who are not healthy. Tzu Chi volunteers provide help for these people.

 

A Small Home,

But a Big Heart

Wu Da-you gets up at 4:30 every morning. If the weather is fine, he goes out to volunteer or do odd jobs. If not, he stays home and reads the newspaper, listens to music, or tidies up his living space. He goes to bed every night before nine and falls asleep in five minutes. He advises older people to avoid thinking too much or stressing over aging, as it will get them nowhere. 

Even though it is only 250 square feet, everything in this studio apartment has its place. Winter coats are hung in an orderly fashion on the wall beside the bed; nearby are various bags, also hung up in a neat row. Every desk drawer is neatly organized. On another wall are several shelves the owner built himself. He knows exactly where everything is, including a box on one shelf in which he keeps used plastic bags, all folded precisely. He recycles them to be reused, an environmentally friendly gesture. Almost every space in the room has been utilized, yet the room does not look messy at all.

If you look closely, you will find that the owner has affixed wheels to a few storage racks in the room, making them easier to move. There are several easily accessible electric outlets that he installed himself. Besides keeping his own place well-organized, he sometimes also fixes broken screen doors for other residents in the building. He is a very skilled handyman.

Right in front of us, he climbed nimbly onto his bed and began to look for things placed on a top shelf. This is especially surprising, considering he is over 90 years old. Instead of needing others to care for him, he lives on his own and gets along very well.

“I feel I’m doing very well,” says nonagenarian Wu Da-you. He is upbeat and optimistic. The calendar on the wall is filled with his social service engagements.

Mentally and physically active

Although Wu Da-you (吳大有) is 92 years old, he still gets around on a motor scooter. He is also smartphone-savvy and a heavy user of the Internet. He chats with his friends via a messaging app on his cell phone, and he makes hospital appointments, buys tickets, reads the news, and listens to music online. He definitely keeps up with the times.

Huang Min-yan (黃敏燕), a Tzu Chi volunteer who visits Wu regularly, was amazed when she found out how tech-savvy Wu was. At 76 Huang is a good 16 years younger than Wu, but she is far less adept at using technology.

Wu reads two newspapers every day, besides browsing the news online. That keeps him up to date with current events. As a result, he is well aware of this new regulation: Starting this year, people 75 or older in Taiwan must pass medical reviews and cognitive tests to qualify for short-period driving licenses, valid for three years.

Wu gets up at 4:30 every morning—a habit of many years. Weather permitting, he goes out for a walk, volunteers, or does odd jobs; otherwise he stays home and reads the newspaper, listens to music, or tidies up his living space. He is never at loose ends for something to do.

He doesn’t take afternoon naps. He goes to bed every night before nine and falls asleep in five minutes. He attributes his sleeping well to a mind uncluttered by unnecessary thoughts or worries. When volunteer Huang Min-yan, herself a poor sleeper, heard him say how well he slept, she was duly impressed.

Living in a rapidly aging society, Wu advises older people not to think too much about aging, or feel too much stress over it. “If you keep obsessing over your age, you will just get upset, which can affect your health.” A negative mindset, he believes, produces nothing but miserable days.

Angels in life

For over 20 years, Wu did odd jobs for an advertising company, handing out flyers or holding signs on streets, to earn spending money. After he turned 90, his employer, considering his age, stopped letting him hold signs on streets. However, Wu is still hired to check on the company’s human billboards stationed on different streets on the weekends. He rides a scooter around doing the inspections and gets paid 800 Taiwanese dollars (US$25) a day.

Wu lives simply and frugally. Plain noodles and an egg pass for a meal; a loaf of bread is enough for several meals. Even when he goes out to work, he takes his own lunch. He doesn’t have many expenses.

He was certified as a Tzu Chi volunteer eight years ago. Aside from volunteering for the foundation, he helps with document filing in the Traffic Division of the Taipei City Police Department. If that were still not enough, his many friends help keep him busy too. The calendar that hangs on a wall in his room is often packed. He lives at a tempo far from typical of people his age. Fortunately, his good health allows him to continue at this pace. Though he takes medicine for his heart, kidneys, and urinary tract, he is healthier than most older people.

Two years ago, in 2015, he finally obtained approval for low-income status. This allows him to receive from the government a low-income subsidy and a housing stipend of 19,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$630) a month. With that extra income, he no longer has to worry about not being able to afford his rent, utilities, and other expenses, and he can even save some money and help friends who are in financial straits.

Even though Wu was married once and has kids, they are rarely in touch. They are not in a position to support him anyway. But it’s just because he has kids that his application for low-income status took years to be approved.

For ten years before he started receiving the low-income support from the government, his major source of income was a monthly subsidy provided by Tzu Chi.

Over ten years ago, Wu passed out due to malnutrition and heat stress while working as a human billboard on the street. He was living in a tiny rented attic at the time, and he was in very poor financial shape. His low-income status had not yet been approved, so the social welfare department of the Taipei city government referred his case to Tzu Chi for help. After assessment, the foundation decided to provide him with financial aid. Volunteers also began visiting him regularly and giving him daily supplies.

 

Wu Da-you, 92, still has good eyes and ears. He often reads the news or listens to music online. Until a few years ago, he worked as a human billboard to make spending money.

Not long after that, Wu was hospitalized for tuberculosis. Huang Fu-mei (黃富美) and other volunteers accompanied him through the hospital stay, giving him what help he needed for over a month. “Without Tzu Chi volunteers, I don’t know how I would have pulled through that period. I’ll never forget what they did for me.” He joined Tzu Chi’s recycling work and began taking part in Tzu Chi events. He became a donating member and even trained to be a certified volunteer.

Volunteer Liu Xiu-jiao (劉秀嬌) remembered that Wu was nothing but skin and bones when he came down with tuberculosis. He weighed just under 50 kilograms (110 pounds), a far cry from what he is today, a healthy 70 kilograms. She was glad to see him fill out and become healthier under the volunteers’ care.

Part of a family

Wu has nothing but gratitude for where he is now. The social welfare department installed an emergency phone in his room, so should anything happen, all he has to do is press a button and help will be automatically summoned. He feels he is being very well cared for. Fortunately, he has had no need to press the button yet.

Volunteer Liu Xiu-jiao often phones Wu to check on him. One time she called several times without answer. She became very worried and went to the concierge at Wu’s building to inquire. The concierge couldn’t tell her anything, so she went straight to Wu’s apartment and knocked on the door. She discovered that he was sick and weak and hadn’t eaten properly in some time.

Wu said that he has no fear for the future. He has already signed up to be a body donor. When the time comes, he will be well taken care of. “My landlord or the neighborhood head will be spared the trouble of taking care of my body.” Death is nothing to fear, he says; it is something everyone has to face sooner or later.

Wu said that his tuberculosis years ago didn’t scare away Tzu Chi volunteers but actually drew them to him. He joined Tzu Chi out of a heart of gratitude.

He added that he had left some Tzu Chi volunteers’ phone numbers with the concierge. He told him the volunteers will handle his affairs when he passes. “They’re family,” he said.

Wu, who came to Taiwan from China all alone many, many years ago, feels lucky that he ended up having so many people who care for him. He was born in Jiangsu Province, China, in 1925. His parents were in fabric and food-and-beverage businesses and did very well financially. Sadly, his father was later killed in a war, and Wu was forced to quit school. He joined the army along with the entire staff and student body at his school.

Before he and his teachers and schoolmates boarded a boat for Shanghai, Wu’s mother sewed some gold nuggets into his cotton-padded coat and pants. Not long after that, he arrived in Taiwan. That was in 1948, when he was 23 years old. He never saw his mother again. In his memory, she has always remained a woman in her 50s.

He retired from military service a few years later. After working in northern and eastern Taiwan for many years, he opened an advertising company in Taipei. He also purchased some land in northern Taiwan with some friends and had houses built for sale. He even served as a township representative once. He was quite successful during that period in his life.

But then he was caught violating the negotiable instruments law. In order to avoid liability, he divorced his wife and transferred ownership of his assets and property to her. Unexpectedly he grew more and more distant from his wife and eventually lost everything he had.

Not knowing what else to do, he started doing odd jobs to support himself. Later, he opened an eatery. At night he slept in a tiny rented attic.

Wu has lived through ups and downs, through good and bad times in life. Reflecting on his life, he said, “When you come right down to it, nothing is really secure in life.” He is thankful he has been able to live to his old age, having even survived a bullet which hit his helmet when he was a young soldier in action.

Life is truly impermanent. For one thing, he never expected that his family would not be around him in his old age. He now realizes that if you want to have a happy family life, you need to build relationships with your family with care.

Having seen a lot, he has developed a philosophical attitude to living and to dying. He feels that nothing is really that big a deal or worth losing sleep over. “Being physically and emotionally healthy is the most important thing,” he said. If you don’t have health, what use is wealth to you?

Now, the few possessions in his rented apartment, his fellow Tzu Chi volunteers, and a number of friends are all he has in his old age. Despite not having much, Wu feels happy and blessed. Though he can’t have his own flesh and blood around him, he is still a member of a big happy family.

 

My Children Are Blessed

She expresses herself freely through drawing, having found a creative outlet in her old age that makes her happy. She shares her passion by holding exhibitions and teaching others to draw. She is always busy, but she takes good care of herself, which is a blessing for her offspring.

Her colors are bold and bright. The sun blazes red, yellow, and green, the trees and flowers are in full bloom, and the people she creates all wear joyful smiles. She gives her imagination free rein as her hand, holding a crayon, moves quickly across the paper. Drawing is her outlet, where her emotions and thoughts find meaning and life. Her simple, unsophisticated lines and shapes reflect her character and subconscious outlook on life.

Huang Mei-yu (黃美玉), 75, has been through many ups and downs in life. She has lived and experienced the beauty and ugliness that life brings. What she has learned along the way unfolds in her art, one drawing after another. She tells her life story through her art, using drawing to cultivate her mind and heal her inner wounds. She has been drawing for six years, has exhibited her art publicly, and even teaches other elderly people to draw.

Huang has lived alone for many years and she enjoys it. She believes that colors can stimulate creativity and improve some of the negative symptoms associated with aging. She is a happy person today, perfectly able to laugh at the rough patches she has experienced in her life. Even her nicknames, “Sister Sunny” and “Granny Happiness,” reflect her positive disposition.

People in Huang’s drawings smile brightly, just like Huang herself.

Be a mature old person

Huang’s mother is 92 years old, and she often laments to Huang about the pain of being a doddering, useless old-timer. Huang always tries to cheer her up. “Your daughter—me—has grown old too. Let’s learn to be happy old people together.”

Huang’s mother is currently hospitalized for spinal surgery. Huang’s sister looks after her during the day, and Huang takes over at night. The experience has taught Huang how powerless one can be when one is old and ill. It has also taught her that children are blessed when their aged parents are healthy and happy.

As a daughter helping to care for an ailing mother, she knows that if she ever gets sick, her own children will have to take care of her. Since aging is inevitable and illnesses are likely, how does one best prepare for them?

Huang believes that sound guiding principles in life are necessary to have the inner peace and stability that will provide support through illness and old age. If people have core beliefs that support and empower them, they will be less likely to become lonely or fearful when they get old. Having such core beliefs bolsters one’s attitude and provides true consolation through difficult days.

Huang is perfectly comfortable with the fact that she is old. She often tells her “old friends” that it’s nice being old. People make allowances for you when you speak slowly, eat slowly, or walk slowly. You even get free rides on buses, and younger people give up their seats to you on public transportation. Being old comes with many benefits. “So we should all be happy we are old!” she exclaims.

Short and petite, Huang has lively, animated facial expressions and gestures when she talks. Give her any topic and she can go deep or humorous with it. She projects a vitality that indicates a bustling life force within her. We were amazed as she shared with us the challenges she has overcome in life. We were equally impressed with how those challenges did not knock her down but made her stronger and wiser.

Becoming tougher through impermanence

Huang’s mother was married at 16 and gave birth to her less than a year later. To support the family, Huang’s father went to Japan to work when Huang was just four. He rarely returned to Taiwan to visit. Huang had a materially deprived childhood. She didn’t have even a desk in her room. Because of her family’s poverty, she was forced to drop out of high school. After that, her grandmother taught her how to make clothes to earn money.

Huang married a man who ran a publishing company. They lived a stable life until he cosigned a loan for a friend and ended up deep in debt. Worry and stress led to poor health, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Their youngest daughter was just six when he passed away. Huang, 43 at the time, cried for three days and nights at the hospital morgue. She was a full-time homemaker, and if it hadn’t been for their friends’ help, she wouldn’t have been able to hold a funeral for her husband.

Huang was raised to be religious. She had followed her parents and become a devout member of Yiguandao, a Chinese folk religious sect. She even became an “initiator” (similar to a preacher) in her religion. Because of her background, she was familiar with Confucian and Taoist ideas, as well as the impermanence of life emphasized in Buddhism. Even so, recalling her husband’s passing, she said, “When impermanence strikes you, it is still very hard to take.” Within a month of his death, Huang’s hair had turned completely gray, partly out of grief and partly because she was being hounded by her husband’s debtors.

She cut her long hair short and began working as a cleaning lady to support her family and repay her husband’s debts. Some time later, she switched to making vegetarian sushi and zongzi (a traditional Chinese food made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves) to make money. She first sold her food at traditional retail markets and then switched to bulk sales. During that time, Huang supplied almost all the vegetarian sushi sold at the markets and vegetarian restaurants in Taichung City, where she lived.

Huang worked day and night to meet the demand for her food. For several years she worked so hard she suffered from sleep deprivation. “I told myself I had to hang in there for my mother and children and that all this was temporary. After all, we wouldn’t be down in the dumps forever.” Fortunately she had a strong will. To keep her family fed and clothed and to repay her husband’s debts, she went all out to make money, never wasting a second.

Later, she and her daughters took up direct marketing for health products. She did so well that she often received the top salesperson award. A thunderous round of applause greeted her every time she stepped on stage to be recognized. These boosted not only her income, but her confidence as well. She was in direct marketing for 15 years, from ages 50 to 65. When her company eventually folded, her highly successful career also came to an end. She went back to an ordinary life.

Huang (front row, center) has made many friends who like to draw.

Live each day to the fullest

She felt lost at first, but it turned out that all the ups and downs in her life had their purpose. It was around that time that she encountered Tzu Chi. She clicked with the philanthropic philosophy of the foundation, which, like her own religion, also embraced Confucian ideals and values. She began to actively take part in foundation events and started training to be a certified volunteer. Her daughters were very happy to see her smiling more and more after she joined Tzu Chi. They could see that she had found something to which she could devote her heart.

Huang’s volunteer work allows her to see the suffering of the needy, which has taught her to be more appreciative of what she has. There used to be something missing in her life, but volunteering her time to serve others helped fill that void. She began to embrace life with a passion that made people envious.

Huang has lived alone for years, and she tries to avoid bothering her children for anything, but she doesn’t think people should live their old age in seclusion. “Moping around at home is more likely to lead to ill health,” she says.

After she joined Tzu Chi, she felt a sense of belonging and comfort. “Tzu Chi is my home now!” she declared. She uses herself as an example and advises people not to get married just for a sense of security. Doing so can make it especially hard should their spouse die unexpectedly.

Huang keeps herself busy every day. She believes that an old person without a purpose will become a worry to his or her children. Some people may think she should take it easy and not be such a “workaholic” in her old age, but what they don’t understand is how happy she is being busy.

“It’s a great blessing that I’m still fit enough to give of myself.” She emphasizes that it is better for an older person to keep busier than become idle. Keeping busy means that you are needed, in relatively good health, passionate about life, and enjoy making yourself useful and being of service to others. She often has such a full schedule that her children cannot just drop by to visit her at their whim; they first have to phone her to be sure that she is home. Holding exhibitions, teaching drawing, volunteering, writing, and taking photos—her life is richer and more varied than many people much younger. 

Huang likes drawing the most when she is home. Her experiences in life provide her with an endless source of inspiration.

No fear

As an old person living alone, doesn’t she ever experience fear or anxiety? “One fears because one needs love,” she said.

Experience has taught her that living every day fully, as if it were your last, eliminates fear or anxiety. “If you focus your energies on living each day to the fullest, how will you ever have time to fear or worry about the future?”

Her advice to other old people is to accept the fact that they are old and learn to enjoy their old age. “Be kind to yourself. When anything happens, look on the bright side. Don’t read too much into others’ words. Don’t let a worry stay with you for longer than three seconds, or else you’re just giving yourself a hard time.”

Unlike many people, she doesn’t consider death a taboo topic. She is completely at ease talking about it. “After I die, just cremate my body and spread the ashes anywhere. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” She has an inner confidence which she says is wrought from the tribulations she has endured in life. She feels that she hasn’t owned anything in this life. “My inner confidence is all I have.”

She had to drop out of high school due to poverty, but in her latter years she learned to draw and she now busies herself with volunteering. She has learned so much more from the school of life than she could have learned in an ordinary school. She uses her art to share her story, using colors to show what has touched and inspired her. She has filled more than 20 painting albums. Taking her drawings with her, she sometimes visits schools and tells stories to children, and sometimes visits communities and gives talks to housewives. She greatly enjoys these activities.

Her life is fulfilling as she plays her various roles with zest: a Tzu Chi volunteer, an amateur artist, an initiator for her religion, and—her childhood dream—a storyteller! She personifies the saying “Life begins at 70.”

Seeing Beauty Everywhere

A Fountain of Youth

Zhang Yuan-zhen is sensitive to the beauty of life, no matter how small. She is quick to appreciate the loveliness of a small flower or the warble of a bird. Though the passing of her beloved family members has brought her pain, she knows that nothing is truly lost with love.

Zhang Yuan-zhen (張遠鎮), 75, lives in a 360-square-foot room on the top floor of a building in Taipei. The room is elegantly decorated with potted plants, oil paintings, and other delightful ornaments. She lives here alone, in a world all her own.

She has lived alone since her husband passed away five years ago. One of her sons and his wife live just downstairs. They have invited her many times to move in with them, but she insists on living independently. “Friction is less likely to happen with a little space between us,” she says.

Every morning in this private space of hers, she nurses a cup of coffee over breakfast and talks to a photo of her husband. “I feel especially blissful during that hour,” she says. This daily morning monologue is her favorite time alone.

Zhang talks to her deceased husband every morning as she nurses a cup of coffee or tea in a room all her own. The lotus flowers on her skirt were painted by herself.

Alive to beautiful little things in life

Zhang, like her mother before her, was a music teacher. Her daughter is a musician too, living in Vienna. Zhang is now teaching a granddaughter to play the piano. “Four generations of our family have studied music.” She added with a smile that her younger brother is a painter, and her maternal grandfather was a sculptor. Five generations of her family have studied and loved artistic expression in music or the visual arts.

Zhang took up painting when she was 55. With her artistic family background, decades of exposure to music, and her relatively recent interest in painting, she says that the thing she cares about the most in her life is beauty. Such beauty for her is more than mastering musical or painting skills. Rather, it lies in a sensitive mind and the ability to appreciate the good things life can offer.

She uses a potted plant on her balcony as an example. “Maybe a strawberry will begin to grow tomorrow,” she says. “One day it will be orange in color, and the next day it will be red.” She finds delight in such small things; she is alive and present to the beauty of life, to the beauty of the world. Sadly, she feels most people are blind to this gentle beauty.

She knows that one doesn’t need analytical power to appreciate beauty—all you need to do is look, listen, and feel mindfully, with your heart. For example, it isn’t necessary to understand the technical aspects of Picasso’s paintings to appreciate their beauty. Likewise, you don’t have to understand a bird’s song to enjoy its melodiousness.

After Zhang had finished her formal musical training, she served at a junior high school, teaching a class for students who wanted to pursue music as a career. She threw herself into her work, and she helped cultivate many professional musicians over the course of her career. In fact, many of the established musicians in Taiwan today around 50 years of age were among her students. She remembers taking her students abroad to perform. “It was like leading soldiers off to war—everyone was nervous and on edge,” she said. There were all kinds of problems to solve. Some of her students would run a fever right before a performance, and some would misplace their sheet music. In addition to her students’ performances, she herself once held 28 concerts a year. She was often under a lot of pressure, which might have affected her health.

When she was 43, she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. “The expressions on the faces of my family as they talked with my doctor told me I probably didn’t have long to live,” she recalled. When she was pushed into the operating room, she felt as if she was being led to a guillotine. Her mind was in turmoil when she thought of her children, the youngest of whom was just in ninth grade. Ten years later, after having beat her breast cancer, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Having suffered two major bouts with cancer, Zhang is fortunately in good health today. Even though she is 75 years old, she doesn’t have the usual problems that afflict many older people, such as lower back pain, knee pain, or sore neck and shoulders.

She is very grateful that she has lived to an old age. “I feel I’ve lived a bonus 32 years. Every day that I’ve lived since my first cancer scare has been another day gained.” She attributes her good health in part to studying and practicing qigong, and to her attitude. She has discovered that you are less likely to experience anxiety or worry when you live every day of your life with gratitude. In fact, she is often invited to talk about her health regimen at Tzu Chi activities.

Zhang has practiced qigong for more than 30 years and is in good health. She is often invited to share with people her health regimen and her successful experience in fighting cancer.

 

Relaxation is good for health

Zhang’s voice is sonorous when she speaks to audiences on stage, and she can speak for a long time without her voice becoming hoarse. Her expressions and gestures are animated, and she often bursts into loud, cheerful laughter. People often say to her, “You don’t look like a person in her 70s at all.” Without missing a beat, she replies, “What do you think a person in her 70s should look like?”

Zhang often scours the internet for pictures and music to make her computer presentations more engaging when she gives talks. That’s just an example of how her volunteer work has prompted her to continue learning. Almost none of her elderly friends use computers or the internet. Zhang feels that continuing to learn and grow is very important, even when one is aged and retired. It stimulates the brain cells, and it has worked wonders with her.

Despite her age, she doesn’t feel old at all. She believes that how one feels is just a matter of mindset. As Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Age is not a problem, nor are wrinkles. You are young as long as you have a healthy mindset, and you can do just about anything you have an interest in doing as long as you have your health.

Zheng encourages other older people to stay active and to go out and meet people. People age more quickly if they don’t interact with others, she says, and their bodies deteriorate more easily if they stay indoors and are physically inactive. Volunteering has brought her in contact with many people and helped her stay physically active, making her feel healthy and blessed.

Though her schedule is often packed due to her volunteer duties, she remains mentally relaxed. She says that qigong has taught her the importance of relaxation. Refraining from being uptight and learning to relax, both physically and mentally, are conducive to a good old age.

She recalls how uptight she used to be when she took her students to compete in a contest. Eager to do well in everything, she was keen on their capturing first prize. Now she is much more laid-back. When her granddaughter scored 70 percent on a test, she praised her wholeheartedly for doing very well.

Zhang walks through the entrance gate to her home. She herself wrote the calligraphy on the door. Roughly translated, it means: “Several old friends, an enjoyable afternoon together.” The words bear witness to her hospitality.

Love that transcends religion

In 1946, during the Chinese Civil War, Zhang’s father, a high-ranking government official, took his wife and children and moved from China to Taiwan. Zhang was just four at the time. Most people in Taiwan were poor back then, but Zhang and her family lived a comfortable life because of her father. When she visited a classmate and ate for the first time the staple food of poor people during that era—porridge made of dried, grated sweet potatoes—she felt it was so delicious she envied her classmate for being able to eat it every day. Ignorant of the hardships of everyday people, she complained to her mother when she went home about not having this delicacy in their home.

Because her life was otherwise a smooth ride, the passing of her beloved family members were the most painful experiences in her life. When she was 20 and still in school, her family lost their most important support when her father, not yet 50, died of cancer. With four younger brothers under her, Zhang felt for the first time in her life that life wasn’t always going to be a bed of roses.

When she was 53, her mother began showing symptoms of dementia, so Zhang decided to retire early from school to take care of her. Her mother died in her arms 15 years later. Then, five years ago, when Zhang was 70, her mother-in-law and husband died within two months of each other.

Zhang began living alone after her husband departed the world. Every day after the sun set, she would begin to shiver uncontrollably. “I lived in a sort of daze, not knowing how to carry on,” she recalled. Things went on like this for half a year until one day, on her way to the market, she glimpsed a tall building. “When did such a big building pop up here?” she asked herself.

The building was a Jing Si Hall, a Tzu Chi activity center. She entered the building out of curiosity, and was invited to attend a class for Tzu Chi volunteer moms. (Tzu Chi volunteer moms visit schools to share Master Cheng Yen’s teachings with students via storytelling and drama.) Zheng was amazed by the number of mothers so eager to learn. She also found the ambience in the building very comfortable, and she was even moved to tears by the positive energy she felt flowing throughout the building.

She was a devout Christian, having been baptized when she was in elementary school, so she wasn’t sure if she would be welcome in this Buddhist group. She expressed her concerns to the volunteers she met, but they reassured her and told her Tzu Chi welcomes everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Impressed with the open-mindedness of the group, she joined Tzu Chi that very day and began taking part in many social service activities.

She grew up attending a Christian church with her mom and didn’t know much about Buddhism, but she found Master Cheng Yen’s teachings very accessible, wise, and applicable in life. She was surprised by how much they resonated with her. Now she often goes with other volunteers to schools to share the Master’s teachings with students. She told her pastor, “I admire this group. I’m happy doing social services with them.”

She continues to attend a Christian church while volunteering for Tzu Chi. “It’s as if my husband’s soul had guided me into that Jing Si Hall.” She appreciates being able to put herself to good use in her old age, after she had lost her husband. “Living my old age like this is very satisfying.”

Christian gatherings and volunteer work fill her life, leaving her no time to feel lonely or experience anxiety. She couldn’t even celebrate this past Mother’s Day with her children because it was Buddha Day and she had promised other Tzu Chi volunteers to attend a related event.

Zhang is thankful for all that she has gone through in life, even those painful experiences, because they have helped her to cherish even more what she has and deepened her appreciation of beauty and love.

When she was younger, she could never have enough material possessions, but now that she is older, she feels she just needs enough to get by. “It’s all because I have fewer needs now.” She emphasizes that one’s life cannot be bad if one knows how to appreciate beauty and how to love. Likewise, one cannot be happy if one finds nothing beautiful or loves nothing, even if one is loaded with money. “You have to find your own happiness.”

To her, what one needs is taste, not designer clothes. “Even if it’s just a ten-dollar dress, you can wear it in a way that’s classy and stylish.” The 75-year-old Zhang certainly has class and style in spades, and she lives with more verve and passion than many young people.

Fall 2017