Landing at the Ikea Cafe

China has a lot of old people. Due to the one child policy long in place, elders may not  having living sons or daughters with whom they can stay. Or, the 30 square meter apartment in which many Chinese live offers no space for an older family member, especially with the change in social mores that makes the obligation to care for aging parents less compelling. Low rise housing on narrow alleys has given way to high-rise apartment buildings. Elders can no longer walk outside with a chair and socialize with neighbors just across the lane.

So where do lonely older people go? Ikea. To the Ikea cafe, to be exact. The Ikea cafe in Shanghai has 700 seats, is brightly lit and welcoming, offers inexpensive food, and has become a de facto senior center. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, hundreds of elderly Chinese go there in search of love, or sex, or if neither of those, at least a few hours of company to assuage the loneliness of life.

This is, of course, a problem for Ikea who has younger customers with children who want to buy lunch or a mid-shopping snack and sit down and eat it. The seniors aren’t there to spend money in the Ikea store. Indeed, they buy as little as possible in the cafe and sip one small coffee or take tiny bites of cake and make the purchase last for hours.

Ikea’s welcoming attitude toward its customers has created this dilemma, which the company is trying to handle as sensitively as possible. They’ve put in some rules, like you have to actually buy food and appear to be eating it for the hours that you stay. But so far they haven’t banned hours-long stays by the elderly, which would be hard to do without changing the Ikea culture dramatically.

The problem, which Ikea can’t solve on its own, is the large aging population with nowhere to go and nothing to do. As an aging person myself I can’t imagine anything more grim than riding a bus for an hour to sit in an Ikea with 699 strangers sipping cold coffee for a couple of hours, just to avoid going mad from a sense of isolation and emptiness. There has to be a better solution, especially from a culture in which reverence for the elderly has long been a norm.

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