Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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Jul 17th
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Productive Golden Years

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There are more than 67,000 Tzu Chi recycling volunteers in Taiwan. Many of them are elderly with no formal education. But when it comes to sorting recyclables, even younger volunteers with advanced college degrees can’t compare to these older volunteers. These stewards of the Earth give of themselves cheerfully and make good use of their retirement by collecting and reclaiming reusable resources. Their work reduces garbage and pollution and fills their lives with a strong sense of value and purpose. A better, cleaner world for the generations that follow will be their enduring legacy.

At 4:30 a.m., Lu Wang Jin-huan (盧王金環) walks briskly into the recycling station at the Tzu Chi Guandu Complex in Taipei, northern Taiwan. She is a recycling volunteer and comes to the station every day to “tear things apart.” She rips page after page out of discarded books and periodicals and sorts them into piles. Colored pages go into one basket, black-and-white into another, and those that cannot be torn or ripped go into yet another.

By six, the sun is already high in the sky in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. Leaning on a walking stick, Mrs. Xu arrives at the Tzu Chi Xishe Recycling Station. After saying hello to the volunteers that are already there, she sits down on a small wooden chair and begins taking apart audio- and videotapes. The copper, steel, and plastic components are recyclable; the magnetic tapes are not, so they end up in the trash.

By eight, A-qiao has cleaned up the breakfast table and hung out the washing in Yunlin, central Taiwan. Her son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids have already left for work and school. When she is finished with the household chores, she hops on her old bicycle and rides to the Douliu recycling station. Once there, she puts on a face mask and a pair of gloves and immediately sets to work sorting through piles of PET bottles, metal cans, and paper beverage containers.

In big cities or remote rural villages, high in the mountains or down at the seaside, Tzu Chi recycling volunteers can be seen everywhere in Taiwan. Twenty years ago, Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi, began calling upon people to do recycling work to protect the environment. Since then, countless people have joined in as Tzu Chi recycling stations sprang up one after another all over Taiwan.

A large majority of the volunteers are quite advanced in age. They pick up discarded bottles and cans along roads and alleys, collect used cardboard boxes from marketplaces and factories, and they even dig through trash piles to look for “treasures.”

For these elderly volunteers, recycling enables them to contribute to a healthier environment and fills them with a sense of purpose and fulfillment. In the worthy cause of environmental protection, they have found a rewarding paradise in their golden years.

A meaningful path
“I worked really hard to make a living before I retired,” said Jin-huan, 77. “I looked forward to a more leisurely lifestyle when I retired. Little did I know that life would be even harder when I was at loose ends and had nothing to do all day.” Jin-huan was in the wholesale seafood business before she retired and was accustomed to being busy. Once she stopped working, she found she was like a machine that had been left idle too long—she felt as if she were rusting.

Seeing how dispirited she was, her son suggested that she volunteer at a local temple. She took his advice, but soon found an even better place to be—the recycling station at the Tzu Chi Guandu Complex.

However, her son was strongly opposed to the idea. The feared SARS epidemic had hit Taiwan, and he was worried that she would be exposed to the disease on her trips out of the house. After two months of tug-of-war over the issue, Jin-huan still insisted on going. She even rented a small apartment in Guandu so she could be closer to the station. Her determination finally won over her son.

“My son was really concerned about me. He and my daughter-in-law often dropped by the station and pulled surprise inspections to see if I was wearing a face mask [as a safety precaution against SARS],” Jin-huan said with a laugh.

She has been volunteering for seven years now and rarely takes a day off. Her retired friends are engaged in more “traditional” retirement activities: sightseeing tours, dancing, or singing karaoke. However, she derives more pleasure from doing recycling than those other pastimes. “Don’t look down on the seemingly simple task of sorting recyclables. You get to exercise your body and your brain at a recycling station. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll easily make mistakes.”

Jin-huan is very satisfied with her life now. “Life can be miserable if you have no purpose or goal. When I go out with my friends, I often hear that so-and-so has checked into a hospital, or so-and-so has passed away. But, I’m actually getting healthier by doing recycling. Even better, I’ve found a meaningful path to follow in my retired life.”

A-chun, 78, is another Tzu Chi recycling volunteer. She is an early riser, like Jin-huan. She gets up at five every morning and goes to work as a cleaner at a medical clinic for two hours. Afterwards, she hops on a bus to the recycling station. “I just work at the clinic for some pocket money, so I don’t need to take any money from my children.” Actually, her children take very good care of her, and they also volunteer at the station on weekends.

“I’m the only one at home during the day,” A-chun said. “Before I volunteered at the recycling station, I’d just sit around the house and watch TV. I often caught myself dozing off in front of the television set.” That was how bored she was. At home, time hung heavy on her hands. “But here at the recycling station, I’ve got lots of company. We work and chat, and time just flies by.”

Everyone is afraid of being lonely, a feeling that is even more acute among the elderly. Many seniors also tend to feel unimportant and useless after retirement. “Am I unnecessary?” is a nagging question that pops into their minds now and then. Volunteering at a recycling station and sorting recyclables into one neat pile after another makes them feel useful and needed. Many even claim that doing recycling has cured all their little ailments.

Friendship among the volunteers
Lin Xia (林夏) has trouble hearing and used to be in poor health. All day long she felt weak and weary. When her younger sister Lin Su-zi (林素子), who had just moved back to Taiwan after a long sojourn in Japan, visited her and saw how lethargic she was, she decided to take her to the Guandu recycling station to help with some easy work. At the station, Xia received a lot of care from the other volunteers. By and by, she began to smile more. She also became physically stronger and no longer looked so pale.

Realizing how much she was benefiting from the recycling work, she took her husband to the station. Now the couple works side by side, enjoying their new roles as guardians of the Earth.

Lin Xia-hui (林夏會)—no relation to Lin Xia—has a large frame and a big voice. Now 72 years old, she lives in Sanchong, more than an hour by bus from the recycling station. Every day, she dons a backpack, grabs her walking stick, and commutes to work at the station. In addition to sorting recyclables, she also cuts hair for other volunteers. “I was apprenticed to a barber when I was 16,” she explained. “Later I opened my own barber shop. Now that I’m old, I serve as a volunteer. Tomorrow I’ll bring my barber tools here and cut hair for the male volunteers.”

Xia-hui offers her skills to the other volunteers. Others bring food they make themselves. Preserved fruit, iced tea for hot summer days, fried rice cakes—these treats are often seen at the station.

It feels good for these seniors to have the company of the other volunteers. They feel a sense of belonging at the station. Huang Hui-zhen (黃蕙貞), another volunteer, is often touched by the friendships she sees at the station. “Though we all have tempers and little frictions between us are inevitable, we don’t dwell on those. We watch Master Cheng Yen’s daily talks on TV, and that helps us reflect on our behavior. So we are less likely to get petty or angry over little things.”

A day-care center for the elderly
On this day, many of the volunteers were wearing their volunteer uniforms—they were going to attend the funeral of a fellow volunteer’s family member. Their conversation shows how close they have grown to one another.

“Has Li-lan (麗蘭) seen the doctor?” someone asked. “She looked so unwell yesterday and her breath was so uneven I knew there must be something wrong with her.”

Lu Wang Jin-huan chimed in. “She shouldn’t have stopped taking the medicine without consulting the doctor. Besides, she should learn to let go; she worries too much.”

“I invited her to my home, hoping she’d feel better after soaking in my hot spring bath,” said Liu Li-xiang (劉麗香). “But I found that she had trouble falling asleep all night. Seeing her like that, I couldn’t sleep well either.”

Li-lan, the subject of the volunteers’ conversation, is in poor health. She has three sons, but she lives alone and has no one to care for her. Hui-zhen often accompanies her to the doctor. “Li-xiang is older than Li-lan,” said Hui-zhen, “and she used to be in even worse shape, but she managed to emerge from her depression. We hope that with our care and help, Li-lan can be happier one day.”

Three years ago, Li-xiang’s son suffered heavy losses on investments. To help him pay his debts, Li-xiang sold her house and used up most of her savings. It was a heavy blow to Li-xiang, already in her 70s, to see her life’s savings disappear so quickly. As if that were not enough, a nephew whom she loved dearly committed suicide soon after. The successive blows almost made her fall apart.

Li-xiang’s son later moved abroad. She rented a small apartment and lived alone. She felt forlorn and lost, and she didn’t know how to carry on with her life. Several times she passed the Tzu Chi Guandu Complex on a bus, and she would feel an urge to get off the bus and ask for help.

One day, she finally acted on her urge. Eventually, she also began volunteering at the recycling station. She made friends there whose love and care helped her regain hope in life. “Li-xiang used to look so worried,” said Hui-zhen. “But now she is completely changed. Having been through what she has, she’s more empathetic and never hesitates to extend care to people who need help.”

Everyone has their problems, but at the recycling station it is easy to find support and help. Some volunteers enjoy working at the recycling station so much that they report there every day. “Some are dropped off here every day by their sons or daughters or daughters-in-law on their way to work. The youngsters call this place the best day-care center for the elderly,” said Hui-zhen with a laugh.

“The youngsters work hard to make a living, and we work hard to volunteer for Tzu Chi,” the elderly like to say.

The Thousand-Year-Old Club
There are countless other recycling stations in Taiwan like the one in Guandu. One that is particularly noteworthy has a catchy nickname: The Thousand-Year-Old Club.

More than ten volunteers work at this recycling station, located in Xincheng Village, Hualien, eastern Taiwan. The ages of the volunteers, when added together, exceed a thousand years. This is where the station’s nickname comes from.

The person in charge of the recycling station is Lin Xiu-xia (林秀蝦). Now over 60, she began salvaging recyclable materials from garbage piles after Taiwan was hit by a massive earthquake in 1999. By and by, she was joined by her neighbors. She now has a whole team helping her.

When Xiu-xia was 55, someone donated a used truck to their recycling station. She couldn’t drive and, being illiterate, she was afraid of taking the driving test. However, in order to collect and sell recyclables, she overcame all her difficulties and fears and finally passed the driving test.

One time, someone called and asked her to collect some recycled paper. Being a novice driver at the time, she tentatively pulled her truck onto the Suao-Hualien Highway, a narrow, winding road carved into cliffs along the Pacific coast. “I hadn’t been driving very long. When a big gravel truck came up behind me and started honking, it scared me to death,” she said, her vivid expression showing how fresh the incident still was in her mind.

Last August, Xiu-xia was accidentally scalded. She ignored the burn and didn’t seek medical help. In the end, it became seriously infected. The other volunteers at the recycling station eventually forced her to go to the hospital. She was hospitalized for two weeks. All the volunteers who visited her at the hospital nagged her for being so careless of her health. “Who do you think you are, Superwoman?” they chided.

Xiu-xia was worried that no one would be able to drive the recycling truck while she was in the hospital. Fortunately, her worries proved unfounded. Another volunteer offered to drive until Xiu-xia could resume her duties. With this reassurance, she was able to get a good rest at the hospital.

She spoke fondly of her fellow volunteers: “They’re really committed. One time, a volunteer’s left hand was put in cast, yet he still came to the station and sorted recyclables with his right hand. Some volunteers wear back braces, but even that doesn’t deter them from volunteering here.”

She added that though many of the volunteers are illiterate and well advanced in age, they do recycling as well as, if not better than, people with postgraduate degrees. When the topic of environmental conservation comes up, they can talk a mile a minute.

“I’m old and illiterate,” said Xiu-xia. “Sometimes I feel worthless. But age or illiteracy doesn’t matter at all when it comes to doing recycling. I feel like I have also been ‘recycled’ and put to good use!”

A good old age
Gary Small, M.D., the author of The Longevity Bible, lists eight essential strategies for living a long and healthy life: Sharpen your mind, keep a positive outlook, cultivate healthy and intimate relationships, promote stress-free living, adapt and flourish in a changing environment, shape up to stay young, maintain a healthy diet, and get the most out of modern medicine. “Those who volunteer at a recycling station are putting almost all of these strategies into practice,” said Dr. Cai Kun-wei (蔡坤維), a physician in the geriatrics department of Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital in southern Taiwan.

As a gerontologist, Cai has treated all kinds of age-related diseases. “When you are laid up in bed for a week, it takes a month of rehabilitation to get the strength back into your muscles. That’s why it’s really important to stay active, especially for the elderly. Volunteering at a recycling station is a good way to stay active, and it has additional emotional benefits. By joining a group and staying socially connected, old people tend to feel less lost.”

“Everyone gets old,” said Dr. Xu Hong-jie (徐鴻傑) of the department of psychosomatic medicine in Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital. “We experience changes in our bodies as well as in social relationships when we age. After retirement, we move from the role of a ‘producer’ to that of a ‘consumer,’ and we kind of fade into the background. Under the circumstances, people are likely to develop the ‘3L’ symptoms.” By 3L, he means “loss, loneliness, and low level of respect.”

“Old people are also afraid of getting ill and dying, and that often fills them with anxiety,” Dr. Xu continued. “That’s why some of them visit the doctor a lot and take loads of medicine or nutritional supplements—sometimes to the extent that they are taking in more medicine than food.” Dr. Xu indicated that if the elderly have nothing to do all day, their anxiety can grow even worse. “A recycling station answers old peoples’ needs for healthy social relationships. Through recycling and contributing to the cause of environmental conservation, they also feel they are doing something meaningful, and that enhances their sense of value.”

Aging, illness and death are all part of life. What is important is to face it with a positive attitude. Working at a recycling station helps the elderly do just that. “I have nothing but good words for Tzu Chi recycling stations,” said Dr. Xu. “They really help the elderly live well in their golden years.”

Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Fall 2010
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photos by Yang Shun-bin