Visions Journal, 2010, 6 (3), p. 22
The SUCCESS Seniors Quality of Life Outreach Project helps isolated immigrant seniors get involved in community activities and form stable social networks with their peers. The program is offered by SUCCESS, a multicultural, multi-service agency in the Metro Vancouver area, and receives funding from the City of Vancouver.
Social isolation was one of the major issues that came up when I worked in a SUCCESS ESL class for seniors. Many of the seniors told me they felt very lonely. Most spoke very little English, which created a huge barrier between their home environment and the outside world. Many of them were afraid to leave their houses because they feared getting lost, not being able to find their way home and not being able to ask for help.
Although basic ESL classes are usually provided to new immigrants, the English-only learning environment sometimes prevents the seniors from fully understanding the course content. Additionally, some of the immigrant seniors reported that their children were too busy with work responsibilities to focus on their parents’ social lives and personal well-being.
The SUCCESS Seniors Quality of Life Outreach Project was created to address the social isolation of immigrants, ages 50 and up, who live in Vancouver. By providing a peer social and support network, the program promotes physical and mental wellness.
Making friends with peers and the city
There are currently three seniors groups in Vancouver. We have two Mandarin-speaking groups (at Killarney Community Centre and Marpole Place) and one Cantonese-speaking group (at Marpole-Oakridge Community Centre). One SUCCESS staff person coordinates the groups, assisted by a small committee of senior group members. Group sessions are two hours long and scheduled on weekday mornings.
Outreach and information about the program is done through SUCCESS branch locations and community centres. Many seniors find out about the program through word of mouth. Those interested can drop in to a group at the most convenient location. The seniors are welcome to visit the program three times before deciding whether to join the group. They can also sign up by phone or email
Our program uses recreational and educational activities to promote social well-being. The recreational activities we offer are diverse, incorporating both indoor and outdoor activities. When the weather is warm, there are regular outings, such as walks in the neighbourhood, or field trips to art galleries, parks, festivals and so on. In winter, our activities are mainly indoors at the community centre locations.
Discussion among our senior members is a good way to facilitate strong social bonds and improve our members’ mental capacity. We encourage sharing the latest news and information about local issues and events, as this helps immigrant seniors adapt to mainstream community. For instance, construction of the Canada Line transit system and Vancouver hosting the Olympic Winter Games were frequent topics in the past year. A recent session focused on wasting resources and concern for the environment. Members are also able to talk about family problems they may have, such as stress around the workload they have at home, in this supportive group setting.
With the help of social workers and volunteers, our seniors organize celebrations for holidays such as Thanksgivings and Christmas, and birthday parties are held every three months. This is also a good way to strengthen the relationships among our seniors.
Each group offers different recreational activities, reflecting the seniors’ preferences. For example, at Marpole Place, we offer an added two-hour beginners computer class. Basic techniques such as browsing the Internet, sending emails, uploading pictures and using writing pads are taught by volunteers on a weekly basis. At Killarney Community Centre, the seniors group emphasizes learning English. This group is perfect for seniors who already have basic knowledge of English and would like to improve their conversation skills. The Cantonese-speaking group at Marpole-Oakridge Community Centre focuses more on artistic activities such as dancing, singing, practising Chinese martial arts and doing various handmade crafts. Recently, these seniors learned to make lanterns out of traditional red envelopes for Chinese Lunar New Year.
In terms of educational activities, guest lectures and workshops are presented every month to empower our seniors with knowledge about health issues and social resources. Again, the topics presented vary depending on the seniors’ needs and desires, but workshops have included Vancouver’s transportation system, the Canadian tax system and Canada’s income assistance system. Workshop presentations also cover preventing physical and mental illnesses. We have had speakers from the Canadian Mental Health Association and have a session on Alzheimer disease planned.
SUCCESS groups a success
The SUCCESS Seniors Quality of Life Outreach Project has been running for 10 years now and has benefited a great number of immigrant seniors in Vancouver. SUCCESS has started groups in a number of neighbourhoods, including at the Hastings and Thunderbird community centres and South Vancouver Neighbourhood house. Most of them have been aimed at Chinese speakers. This project initiates and supports new groups for three to five years until they are ready to be run independently by the seniors in the group.
It’s clear that the quality of these seniors’ lives improves through joining one of these groups. Members usually attend in the long term. They build friendships and often arrange to do activities together outside of the group. They support each other. For example, if a member is absent from the group for some time, another member will visit them at their home to see how they’re doing. They may lead activities if they have a particular interest or skill. And, ultimately, they value the group enough to keep it going on their own.
A new immigrant seniors group started at Riley Park Community Centre in April. It’s a joint effort of SUCCESS and Little Mountain Neighbourhood House and welcomes both Chinese- and English-speaking members. This new group will empower even more isolated immigrant seniors with personal and social resources for adapting to their new home in Canada.
For more information, contact Danny Li at 604-408-7274 ext. 1083 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Danny is Coordinator for the Seniors Quality of Life Outreach Project at SUCCESS. After graduating from UBC in November 2009 with a BA in social psychology, she volunteered in a Seniors ESL class at SUCCESS. Danny was later recruited to organize the outreach project for immigrant seniors