A More Fulfilling Life for Seniors: The Social Enterprise “Rock YeNai”

photo by Lin Min-hsuan

photo by Lin Min-hsuan

With Taiwan’s impending transition to a super-­aged society around 2025, whether you are an elderly person yourself or there are elderly people in your family, are we all well prepared? What mindset should we adopt in responding to this new situation? And from what perspectives can we best tackle the issues that arise?

The social enterprise Rock YeNai (ye means “grandpa” and nai means “grandma”), founded in March 2017, has so far trained 250 elderly men and women in cultivating a positive outlook that can help them lead active and useful lives in their old age. Founder Sam Lin (a.k.a. “Chocolate”) leads them in studying illustrated books that depict various states of the human condition. Then in turn they tell stories and impart their wisdom.


The Old School Club

Less than ten minutes’ walk from Dapinglin Metro station in New Taipei City’s Xindian District, hidden away in a small lane amidst traditional low-rise apartment buildings, lies the “Old School Club,” which is where Rock YeNai is based.

A group of elderly people, unrelated by blood, are brought together here each month by Sam Lin, creating a warm sense of belonging. “We say it’s like returning to our parental home!” All of them anticipate the day with joy. “Right now we have 250 students all over Taiwan.” Lin wants to convey his care and concern for the older generations to every corner of our island.

Illustrated books

Illustrated books are an important medium through which Rock YeNai tells stories. “Thus far we have come up with one to three courses on different themes each month.” Sam Lin, who studied theater in university and switched over to educational psychology and guidance counseling for his MA and PhD programs, is himself an author of illustrated books, and brings his expertise to bear in interpreting the illustrated books he encounters.

“I studied positive psychology, and I hope to use positive thinking to interpret these books.” At present the teaching materials cover a variety of aspects of human life, including empathy, desire, dementia, self-healing, death, and self-confidence. “A Deer of Nine Colors is an illustrated book about the pursuit of good and dreams.” As Lin picks up the book, a light shines in his eyes. The four main characters in the book represent different personality traits. The king deeply loves the queen, but is blinded by that love and makes ir­rational choices. The queen is greedy, and makes incessant demands. The medicinal herb gatherer, for personal advantage, betrays the nine-colored deer who saved his life. The deer, meanwhile, is the embodiment of goodness and beauty, and although it suffers harm, it holds fast to its initial purity and innocence. “The main themes of this book are forgiveness, love, and hope.”

“The books are just a tool. The main roles are played by the students themselves.” Lin has great confidence in each of the students who have undergone training. “These people all used to be movers and shakers in their former careers!” Lin never applies dogmatic teaching methods or limits his students thinking, but rather draws on a wide range of sources to provide them with inspiration, after which they blend in their own life experi­ences and come up with their own reinterpretations.

“I drive from Xinzhuang to Taoyuan and tell stories in Hutoushan Park.” We are told this by a diminutive old lady who calls herself “Granny 101” (meaning that her spirit is as tall as the Taipei 101 building). Sam Lin jokingly describes her as a “hyperactive child.” For Granny 101, age is just a number on her ID card. She looks enthusi­astic and upbeat, and shines with self-confidence. It is only when you do things for others without expecting anything in return that you understand true happiness.

“My approach is to get the students to step out of their comfort zone and create their own opportunities to tell stories.” Lin encourages his elderly students to push the envelope and to learn to explore new things. “Only by putting in the work can you get something back in return.” Rock YeNai’s system is that students must pay their tuition fees to get their illustrated books and must come to class. But each month students who go out and tell stories and report back will receive “red envelopes” of money from Lin. Although the envelopes don’t contain much cash, they are still a highly effective form of encouragement and motivation. “To earn money by telling stories gives them a great sense of accomplishment.” By putting a price on the value the seniors create, this circular mechanism that Lin has designed returns to students the tuition they originally paid to join the class.

Rock YeNai spreads the idea that older people are still useful members of society. (photo by Lin MIn-hsuan)

Rock YeNai spreads the idea that older people are still useful members of society. (photo by Lin MIn-hsuan)

Two-way learning

“In fact it is I who am learning from these seniors.” Although aging, sickness and death are an inevitable part of life, the mindset one adopts in dealing with old age is something that must be learned. “I’m still young,” says Lin, “but I have something of an irrational fear of aging.” Only by taking good care of oneself can one avoid becoming a burden to one’s family or to society.

A lot of retired people were very vigorous in their former work, but once they retire and have nothing to do all day, they lose their focus in life. “Elder care in Taiwan is still mainly oriented toward medical care.” But Lin believes that body and mind are interdependent, and that mental and spiritual health can lead to physical health. He hopes that through telling stories, seniors can develop their powers of self-healing. “What older people fear most is that they will lose their value to society.”

“I have five chronic illnesses.” So says “Grandma Tomato,” but you couldn’t tell this by looking at her radi­ant face. “I’ve changed a lot since I began telling stories.” A person’s frame of mind has a decisive impact on their situation. By concerning herself with the people and things around her rather than focusing on her own health, Grandma Tomato has freed herself from anxiety and so has largely forgotten her aches and pains.

“I’m merely guiding these elders in creating their own social value.” Lin wants the general public to realize that seniors are a huge asset to society which should be put to good use. “The main point of telling stories is sharing and interaction, not technique.”

An enterprise for old age

“Because people didn’t understand me, I was very rebellious for a while. But one lecture changed my life.” While Lin was a student at National Kangshan Senior High School, Lo Pei-an, the founder of the Greenray ­Theatre Company, came to his school to deliver an address. “It was as if a ray of light from the sky had suddenly illuminated my mind.”

“One’s life’s value is created by oneself.” Starting from university, Lin worked as he studied and advanced into a PhD program. In the process of learning he realized who he really was, and made up his mind to use education to put his ideals into practice. Recalling how he began using storytelling as a means to serve society, he says it came about purely through serendipity. Lin, who launched his first enterprise when he was still a junior in university, met a benefactor and they worked together to found a children’s story house to tell stories to kids. Lin, who has experienced suffering in his life, now has an attitude of “giving something back” and hopes to use stories to spread love and caring.

“Storytelling has a lot of development potential.” It is not limited to oral storytelling—Lin also guides his students to do immersive-theater-style role playing and incorporate interactive situations to give audiences a more vivid and lively experience. To help his students become more independent, “the seniors form teams on their own initiative, choose their own team leaders, and offer services they have mapped out themselves.” Lin plans in the future to start a teacher training course to cultivate seed instructors who will work with him to spread the Rock YeNai model. Feeling the effects of the current coronavirus pandemic, Lin has also decided to more actively promote online storytelling videos; this is the next challenge for his social enterprise.

Paradise is created by the spirit, and if you live with flair, happiness will come of its own accord.