Guo Yia lives in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. His room is small, cramped and is made more so by his walker, a bed, a small stove, a table and a couple of chairs. The bathroom is down the hall. His childhood friend from China, Yung Kin lives in the same building. Because Guo Yia, who is in his sixties, has trouble walking, he is housebound. Without the friendship of Yung Kin, he would be alone.
Guo Yia and Yung Kin are two of over 2,600 seniors who call the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona areas home. Many live in single rooms in subsidized housing. More than half are Chinese immigrants. Some are educated but most are illiterate and poor. The average income is under $16,000 a year.
Alone in a foreign country
Guo Yia has lived in Canada for 13 years. A dispute with his family meant he had to find his own accommodations. His story is not uncommon according to Catherine Yau, outreach worker with the Chinese Seniors Outreach Project. “Many seniors who come to live here have gone (through) some sort of sponsorship breakdown or there are family problems,” Catherine says.
Complicating matters, Guo Yia does not speak English, like 99% of other nearby Chinese seniors.
Lack of English and cultural differences leave many Chinese seniors feeling isolated and disconnected, according to a 2007 UBC/City of Vancouver study. These language and cultural barriers result in gaps in service delivery for seniors and misunderstandings about the needs and way of life of Chinese seniors.
The Chinese Seniors Outreach Project was created in 2008 to help address some of these challenges. A grant from United Way of the Lower Mainland got the project underway. Based out of the Vancouver Second Mile Society offices on East Hastings Street, Catherine Yau and her co-worker Annie Yu work with seniors to improve their quality of life and to help them to connect with the community they live in.
Catherine and Annie organize weekly activities such as tea sessions, educational talks, arts and crafts, and health and wellness workshops in buildings in the area.
“During these times the Chinese seniors gather together, they talk, sometimes if they have any problems they will ask myself and my co-worker to help them,” Catherine says.
They also provide home visits to seniors like Guo Yia in four subsidized buildings near their office on a weekly basis. The one-on-one time provides lonely seniors emotional support and also helps them to understand and navigate government and other services available to them. In Guo Yia’s case, Catherine assists him in booking medical appointments and the Handydart service.
Helping one another
Friendship is one of life’s great gifts and Guo Yia and Yung Kin have a strong one borne of shared experience. One of the project’s goals is help seniors build relationships like that with one another for practical and emotional support.
In the summer of 2010, Catherine trained18 peer volunteers, many between the ages of 60 and 80. Maggie is one of them. She lives at Antoinette Lodge with her husband. Maggie started a weekly chair exercise program to keep seniors in the building, including her husband, active.
“If I do this and everybody is healthy. I am really glad to do this work,” Maggie says through Catherine’s translation.
Getting seniors the help they need can be difficult. While the project’s volunteer base is growing, only one volunteer speaks English and he is not fluent enough to be able to help others navigate the system. In addition, it is not easy to reach isolated seniors. There are challenges persuading building managers and/or the boards of non-profit housing developments to visit the seniors.
“I would love to…tell the Chinese community that we have to face the issues, the problems our seniors are facing,” say Catherine. “I’d like to tell the younger generation that their grandparents need to be cared for in their old age because they cannot fend for themselves when they get old because they don’t know English.
“I want to enable the seniors to be self sufficient and educate them about the kind of life they’re facing."
United Way is dedicated to helping all seniors live well, but especially vulnerable older adults living in the Lower Mainland.
“The Chinese Seniors Outreach Project is a good example of the kind of community-based activity that United Way tries to support – projects (or programs) aimed at supporting seniors’ independence and engagement in the community. With Vancouver Second Mile Society we have a senior-serving agency that has long been committed to genuine outreach work to the isolated seniors in the neighbourhood,” says Beverley Pitman, Planner, Strategic Initiatives (Seniors).
“The project reaches at-risk seniors in ways that make sense and respect their cultural background, the language they speak and other life circumstances – like their housing situation, for instance.”
In 2011/12, United Way of the Lower Mainland will spend about 18% of the total Seniors Priority Area budget on seniors outreach projects. But, the need is great.
Making a difference
Last year, United Way celebrated a 50-year partnership with the Vancouver Second Mile Society, which serves seniors in the Downtown Eastside and houses the project. By providing seniors the programs and services to help them live independently and to be engaged in the community, United Way is making a difference.
Your donations to United Way could help expand seniors outreach programs across the Lower Mainland, making life more vital and vibrant for all.