As soon as Chen Xuemin received her pension last month, she made a donation to her local community theater.
The theater's director, Nong Miaomiao, who lives in the same Beijing community, had heard at the end of August that Chen's husband was seriously ill. Along with 20 other people, Chen made a video of their latest performances, and sent it with their best wishes to the couple. It was the last performance Chen's husband ever saw.
The theater, created by the district government and Tsinghua University in 2014, was conceived as an experiment in bringing together senior citizens to administer their own community activities.
"We want all residents to take part in running their own community and to generate the kind of social vitality that works for them," said Li Qiang, dean of the school of social sciences at Tsinghua University, who oversees the program.
"If the residents have a good reason to be more closely integrated with one another, a harmonious and happy community will take shape," Li said.
It is no secret that China's aging society is one of its biggest social issues. China has more than 220 million people over 60 years old, 16.1 percent of the population, and both the absolute number and the percentage are growing.
Of those senior citizens, 15.3 percent believe they need to be taken care of, more than double the amount in 2000, putting huge pressure on the government.
"One way to address the aging problem is for old people to learn to better care for themselves and for each other," Li said.
Established in the 1990s, the community where Chen and Nong live has a poor environment and old public facilities. Most residents are senior citizens who were resettled here when the buildings were new and their original residences were demolished.
When Li began working with the community, he setup a committee of 34, most of whom were retired. They identify problems, listen to the other residents and discuss solutions. And the district authorities pay attention: A lot of their suggestions have been adopted, such as building bike sheds and planting more trees.
"At first, they did not have much idea about what they should do, and they were reluctant to attend meetings," said Liu Huili, head of the government office in the community. "Later, when they found they really could make a difference, their motivation grew."
One example of the senior citizens' newfound enthusiasm is Li Jianming, 78, who volunteered to set up a tai chi class and now leads a dozen of his fellow residents as they exercise in a nearby park for at least two hours every morning.
"If communities are well managed, many social problems are easily solved," dean Li Qiang said.
A group of senior citizens enjoy their leisure time at a community center in Beijing's Fengtai district in November.Li Xin / Xinhua