Graying in Color: Aging Actively Among Your Own

As Baby Boomers age, senior advocates and the city administration are bracing themselves for an influx of retirees that is expected to increase New York City’s aging population by a third between now and 2030. Today’s seniors live longer, and they have less money and greater chronic health problems than the generation before. They are also more ethnically and culturally diverse, creating new challenges for senior services.

But even as some senior centers close during hard economic times, others have thrived when they unburdened themselves of a “one size fits all” approach. By tailoring programs to specific populations and individual tastes, some of the city’s 250-plus senior centers are finding new ways to create welcoming environments for seniors of all cultures, help seniors to stay in their longtime communities, and encourage seniors themselves to help fill the gaps caused by tight budgets and inadequate staffing.

This is the first in Voices of NY’s four-part multimedia series by Channon Hodge, Cheryl Chan and Justin Chan, exploring some of these new approaches.

A Vietnamese senior, Hui Lan, left, says that dance classes at the Rego Park Senior Center keep her fit and in good spirits. (Photo by Channon Hodge)

On Thursdays at Rego Park Senior Center in Queens, a hundred or so elderly visitors bounce from line dancing to floral design class to a “hot topics” discussion session. In the center’s large main hall, splashed with flags, posters and activity boards, some visitors play mahjong for hours, while the more athletic seniors abandon their walkers for a ping-pong paddle.

“It’s fun, and makes me so happy because I have somewhere to go,” said Rose Visconte, a former radio announcer who comes to Rego Park four days a week, speaking in Chinese. “In the Philippines, I already learned Tai Chi. So, when I came here, I come to the senior center and lead the Tai-Chi Fan, Tai-Chi sword. I’m already 77 years old. When you want to be a healthy and happy person, do more activities.”

Administrators at senior centers in immigrant enclaves such as Rego Park have learned that seniors are more likely to show up at programs that offer activities they’re familiar with, as well as opportunities to hobnob with others that speak the same language.

To serve New York City’s growing – and increasingly diverse – elderly population, senior center organizers are abandoning the “one size fits all” approach to senior care, and instead gearing programs to specific populations and cultures — from Chinese to Jewish, South Asian to LGBT.

The Rego Park center, which is partially funded by the city and run by Queen’s Community House, a neighborhood-based organization, serves a dizzying racial mix, but it has seen the most growth in its Chinese and Asian clientele. Though there are far more Hispanic and African-American seniors in the five boroughs than Asian senors, New York City’s Asian population saw a 61.5 percent increase in the last decade, according to the latest U.S. Census.

A Cultural Draw

It’s the classes, activities and social interaction that draw seniors to the center in Rego Park. But once they’re past the brown metal doors, the center’s organizers use the opportunity to alert the seniors to changes in their Medicare and Social Security benefits and to offer guidance on how to stay healthy, avoid isolation and stave off depression.

At a smaller organization called India Home in Queens, the parties, dances, yoga classes and craft activities draw the roving center’s South Asian clientele, many of whom live in “Little Indias” around the city. India Home springs up at various locations, depending on the day of the week — Sunnyside Community Services on Monday, Services Now for Adult Persons in Jamaica on Wednesday, Self Help Community Services in Flushing on Saturday, and so on. A donated van picks up nearby South Asians and ferries them to the program for a token fee of a couple of dollars.

The participants start their day at India Home humming prayer songs. They move on to work through word puzzles, practice a bit of yoga, and do craft projects such as decorative magazine holders to sell at the next fundraiser. They’ll break for lunch, then hear from speakers on subjects ranging from food stamps to estate planning to green cards. The walls of the Sunnyside center are lined with photos of a recent cruise around New York Harbor.

A senior center’s activities are just as necessary as its social service goals, said the Rego Park Senior Center’s director, Irina Sarkisova. It’s all part of a holistic approach to senior care, she explained, where seniors are seen as more than just cases for agencies to solve with benefits or intervention.

“People from different communities, especially immigrants, they have other needs,” Sarkisova said. “Social needs, medical needs, probably some needs they’re not aware of. We, as professionals, we know how to assist them.”

New Challenges

Senior advocates and the city administration are bracing themselves for an influx of retirees that is expected to increase New York City’s aging population by more than a third between now and 2030, according to projections from the NYC Department of City Planning and numbers from the 2010 Census. Today’s seniors live longer, but are poorer, with an increasing incidence of mental health problems. Since 1990, the number of New York City seniors who live under the poverty line increased by 12.7 percent to nearly a fifth of those 65 and older — even as poverty among seniors nationwide decreased from 12.8 percent to 9.9 percent over the same period, according to the NYC Department for the Aging’s Plan Summary for 2011.

The latest U.S. Census also found that the city’s white senior population is declining, as the city’s African-American, Hispanic and Asian populations increase. New York City’s senior population is becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse, DFTA noted, citing NYC Department of City Planning data showing that one quarter of New Yorkers speak a language other than English as their primary language.

All this creates new challenges for senior services.

Rachit Manglani, a home care coordinator at India Home, talks to seniors one–on-one about health care and how to find help with their medical needs. Many South Asian seniors have trouble getting that kind of information in their own community, he said.

“It’s a very closed society till now,” said Manglani. “Socialization is a must… [India Home] is one place where they get all these services under one roof. All this information, home care, everything, under one roof.”

Yoga classes are among the activities on offer at India Home, a roving senior center in Queens. (Photo by Channon Hodge)

Many of India Home’s participants speak a little English, but for some, their language skills are not sharp enough to navigate the social security system, even with the translation services available at city agencies. The participants say they prefer to get the information at India Home, in their own language.

“We can get knowledge about how to survive… if you have low income, how to get help from government,” said Bhanu J. Shah, 66. Sometimes, she said, she takes the information she learns here and passes it on to friends and family members. In that way, South Asian seniors help each other and themselves, Shah said.

“We are [here] for ourselves,” she said. “For our happiness.”

In Rego Park, a Vietnamese senior, Hui Lan, said it’s the cultural programs that have brought her happiness and good health — especially the Chinese dance classes. Lan, who learned about the program from her friend Rose Visconte, said the class has become popular among Asian seniors through word-of-mouth. Many of her friends come from as far as Brooklyn to take dance classes at Rego Park, where one of the teachers is well-known, Lan said.

A slim, fit, semi-retired acupuncturist in her seventies, Lan used to worry over her health, but said she feels better after she committed herself to Chinese dance class and tai chi. She has been dancing with the center’s troupe for three years, she said, and loving every minute of it. Pictures on the wall of the center show its dancers in various coordinated costumes for performances at Chinese New Year or Full Moon festivals.

“In the beginning, I cannot do very well,” said Lan in her acquired English. “But they teach us well, and I start [to take] interest in it.”


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