Photo: Cao Xuemei (left) and Cui Xingli (right). Source: Sixth Tone.
Cao Xuemei, 76, strove each day to care for her 80-year-old husband Cui, but as time wore on and his Alzheimer’s progressed, it became nearly impossible to tend for his needs on her own. When Cui went missing one afternoon in the fall of 2015, it was apparent they couldn’t keep living as they had been. Cao had seen him watching TV only a few minutes earlier, but when she walked back into the room he was nowhere to be found.
Cao and her family were thrust into a panic, phoning the police and searching for him for the rest of the day. They finally found him 8 hours later standing on the side of the road. When Cao, hugging him with joy, asked him why he had left the house, he responded, “I went looking for you.”
After that frightening episode, Cao and her family knew something had to change. He was getting progressively worse and if he continued to decline at that pace it was going to be impossible for Cao to care for him. Their children suggested putting Cui in a nursing home, but Cao refused to let him go.
“I couldn't bear to send him to a nursing home. I don’t trust the nurses to take care of him,” she said in a report published in Sixth Tone, a sister publication of the Chinese publication The Paper. Her true love for her husband was again exemplified in another article published in China Daily, “I’ve spent many sleepless nights caring for my husband, but I never felt miserable because he has been precious to me throughout my married life.”
And so, Cau, caretaker of her family and faithful wife for 54 years, bravely struggled on so that Cui could have the best love and attention possible.
An unsuspecting blessing of relief for their troubles came way by their granddaughter who suggested Cao begin a live-streaming video channel on the popular Chinese platform Inke. Cao had long dreamed of performing on TV, so she agreed to start the channel, asking for her granddaughter’s technical assistance if she ran into trouble. Initially Cao and Cui’s children did not think the channel would be a good idea, but the outcome soon changed their minds: the channel became a sudden success and over time Cui’s involvement with his wife’s channel resulted in noticeable improvement in his dementia and over-all happiness.
In China, over 8 million people have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, making it a very relatable subject for the internet. Though most of the young audience on Inke doesn’t have to worry about the disease yet for themselves, some of them are acquainted with the illness through older family members. Another reason for them to watch the livestream lies in the fantastic love story Cao and Cui live out in their everyday lives.
Cao adores her young fans and often counsels them about their own love stories as she shares her own. Fans love Cao, who they call by her channel name “Happy Grandma”, and take interest in watching her and Cui, also known as “Grandpa”, every day as they sing, talk, share memories, and heal.
Though Grandpa struggled daily before the channel’s creation to even swallow pills due to both Alzheimer’s and three past strokes, the therapeutic attitude of the channel has gradually helped him to regain his ability to sing, dance, and remember his other family members, some of whom he had not recognized at times in the past.
Cao directly involves him in the show, asking him stimulating questions in front of her audience, such as how old he is, and when he answers correctly she praises him. Sometimes she makes mistakes on purpose in hopes that he will correct her. And, he often does. Sometimes these conversations have managed to unearth old memories, which he tells to his adoring fans.
Psychiatrists attribute the therapeutic properties of the channel to an increase in social and mental interaction. Studies have shown that being engaged in stimulating mental activities can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and people who are surrounded by close connections with others are also less at risk than those who describe themselves as lonely. A study at Rush University confirmed this after researchers followed 800 people around 80 years old for four years. The participants, none of which had dementia at the beginning of the study, were asked to rate their loneliness on a scale, and when the study ended the results were reviewed. The statistics overwhelmingly showed how devastating it is for a person to live a lonely life, “During the study 76 people developed Alzheimer’s-like dementia. People with the highest scores on the loneliness scale had more than twice the risk of developing dementia as those with social connections who had scored lower” (Diament). While social interaction over the internet is probably not as beneficial as face-to-face conversation, it does seem to be helping Cui, especially combined with the loving care Cao continues to give him every day.
While Cao certainly expects her husband to continue to improve as they create their live-streams more often, their daughter notes that Cui still is not in the best of health and worries that he may not live much longer. She says her father was able to walk for ten minutes during one of their trips two years ago, but this past year he was not able to get out of his wheelchair. She worries that the last trip may be the final one she has the chance to take with her father, despite the live-streaming.
Even so, “Happy Grandma” has certainly added joy and healing to Cao and Cui. Their story serves as a reminder that Alzheimer’s patients and their families should set their goals on the best quality of life possible, regardless of the time left.
Diament, Michelle. “Socializing Key to Memory, Fighting Alzheimer's and Dementia - AARP Everywher...” AARP, 21 Nov. 2008, www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-11-2008/friends-are-good-for-your-brain.html.
Xiaolian, Zhang. “Elderly Couple's Heartfelt Fight Against Alzheimer's Goes Viral.” Sixth Tone, The Paper, 1 Dec. 2017, www.sixthtone.com/news/1001261/elderly-couples-heartfelt-fight-against-alzheimers-goes-viral.
Kun, Liu, and Li Lei. “An Elderly Couple Find Fame in Livestreaming.” China Daily, 11 Oct. 2017, www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/11/content_33100729.htm.