Community grant helps reduce isolation among Chinese seniors

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By Aldis Brennan

Like many others, when Sunny Sun came to Canada from China, her elderly parents followed. They didn’t speak any English and were not familiar with the culture. It was understandably a difficult transition for them.
“There are a lot of barriers for them to overcome in order to adapt to their new life in a totally different country,” Sun said. “Language and transportation are two of the main factors that prevent them from making friends and exploring the community.”
These barriers can often leave Chinese seniors isolated and alone, but Redleaf Cultural Integration (RCI), a non-profit in Burlington, Ontario has been working to prevent this.
“Social isolation is one of their main challenges,” Lily Hudson, Executive Director of RCI said. “So, we started organizing activities for seniors considering their culture and language needs. Most of them don’t drive, so we rent a school bus to pick up those seniors so that they can join our activities.”
Then COVID-19 happened. By late January the Chinese community in Canada had already heard about how the virus had spread throughout mainland China and RCI made the difficult decision to cancel their activities.
“The group we serve are seniors, so are at a higher risk,” Sun, now a Project Coordinator for RCI said. “The average age of our group is likely around 65 or 70, and many are also dealing with health issues.”
The barriers that RCI tried so hard to prevent were back due to this unprecedented pandemic, and the seniors they serve were suffering.
“Once COVID-19 started, they couldn’t go anywhere. They don’t have their own cars and they are, of course, very afraid of taking public transportation,” Sun said. “That meant they lost their social circle. The COVID-19 impact for them is mental and it’s pretty bad.”
So, RCI started an experiment. What if they could get seniors to engage with each other and learn online? At first, they weren’t sure it was going to work. But this was a very spirited and persistent group.
A collage of online participants from Redleaf Cultural Integration 
“I thought it was a good idea, so I talked to the others and we started trying to use Zoom to offer some online classes for seniors,” Sun said. “It started as three classes a week, but there was demand from the seniors for more, so it’s grown into five classes a week.”
They learn about everything from English skills, dancing fitness, traditional Chinese medicine, tea preparation, to photography. Sometimes volunteers from other organizations are asked to provide information on topics like how to use an iPad or iPhone. If you’re a fan of singing, there’s a group for that too. However, they quickly noticed that some of their seniors weren’t joining the classes.
“The seniors who weren’t joining live alone, we were kind of concerned about how they’re doing,” Mary Ren, Project Coordinator for RCI said. “So, we started a pilot project called ‘Check and Chat’ where we call seniors to check in on them, chat, and see what we can do to help.”
They’ve even engaged some of their volunteers, who are seniors themselves, to take part in case the person they’re calling would feel more comfortable talking to someone from their age group.
“They love our calls and welcome these conversations,” Ren said. “Through the online classes and Check and Chat program we can see that they feel more comforted, encouraged and engaged. They can set up their new routines. They become more relaxed and are more willing to reach out to other seniors to strengthen bonds instead of becoming isolated.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time. Information on how to stay safe changes frequently, and lockdowns have meant that we can’t easily visit our friends and family, but Sun takes inspiration from the resilience of the seniors she works with.
“It’s amazing. They started off with very low understanding of technology, but they’re very persistent and interested in learning so they try their best to adapt,” Sun said. “I think it shows that you’re never too old to learn, which really inspired me to keep on learning too.”

This program was supported thanks to the generous support of the Government of Canada's Emergency Community Support Fund.


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