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Hot and too-thrifty elders should spend on AC
2013-07-29
By Doug Young

EVERYONE is looking for ways to keep cool as Shanghai bakes under a nonstop summer heat wave, and retirees are particularly vulnerable to the high temperatures.

But recent reports of thrifty senior citizens clogging up air-conditioned public spaces to escape the heat points to a larger social problem, prompting me to look more closely at this phenomenon that can be annoying to ordinary people and even a safety hazard.

This tendency for elders to economize in every possible way certainly isn't unique to China, as such people live on very limited incomes throughout the world.

But in China the issue seems rather extreme, the result of a mentality among elders who grew up in far less prosperous times. My advice to these elders is: Stop skimping and spend some of your hard-earned money to enjoy a few basic simple pleasures like air-conditioning on a hot summer day.

These legions of super-thrifty elders are a highly visible fact of life in modern Shanghai. It's hard to have a drink or bite to eat at a coffee shop or bakery without noticing one or two elderly people occupying a table, though they often haven't made any purchases. I was surprised recently when a retiree was filling up a jug for his home water dispenser from the drinking fountain at my local gym, in his effort to save four or five yuan (65-81 US cents).

The plight of these overly-thrifty elders came into focus two years ago, when media reported on a regular gathering of retirees in the eatery of an IKEA furniture store in Xuhui District. The retirees would get a free cup of coffee at the store and then sit for hours to gossip and look for new friends, taking away seats from regular paying customers.

The latest reports look quite similar, with retirees and other elders turning to buses and air-conditioned subway stations to escape the heat. Many of them were using free transit cards to board air-conditioned buses and simply ride around for hours. Others were congregating in the big open spaces of subway stations, creating congestion and a safety hazard.

Managers and other workers at these places say they are reluctant to evict seniors, who often become defensive and argumentative in the rare instances when asked to leave.

I can certainly sympathize with seniors, as no one wants to be outdoor or inside a stuffy apartment during this hot weather. But I also find it a bit ironic when many of these same retirees lavish expensive gifts on their grandchildren, and fork over huge sums of cash to help their children buy cars and expensive apartments.

This thrift reminds me of my own grandmother, who was similarly cost-conscious after growing up during the Great Depression in the US. Despite having more than enough money to live out her retirement, she often economized in every possible way, from attending discount movie matinees to taking home uneaten bread and butter from restaurants.

This generation of elderly Chinese suffers from a similar mentality, which could be hard to change even though many now have ample money to lead more comfortable lifestyles. Most of them grew up during an era when the average Chinese earned less than US$20 a month, and things like eating at a restaurant or home air-conditioning were unaffordable luxuries.

Still, I suggest some of these people try to do what is probably unthinkable and enjoy some of their savings through air-conditioning their homes and eating out more often.

District governments could also play a role by promoting development of more affordable alternatives for these seniors, for example, by building more air-conditioned centers where these people could congregate to chat and engage in other popular activities like ballroom dancing and playing mahjong. After all, many of these people are simply lonely and looking for company when they congregate in places like the IKEA and subway stations.

What's needed is a joint effort by these elders themselves and the government and general public to find practical alternatives to address a phenomenon that's not really a major problem but more a nagging social disorder. Such a campaign can help to move seniors into more comfortable and convenient environments, freeing up spaces on buses, in stores and in subway stations, and helping Shanghai to polish its image as a modern, clutter-free city that takes good care of its retirees.

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