Chinatown-based non-profit organization integrates seniors into society

There are often many barriers that prevent seniors from living their best lives. Health complications are one part of the picture, but loneliness, advocating for one’s needs, and a lack of agency are challenges as well. For immigrant seniors who might face a language barrier, that can make all of those things even trickier to handle.

Enter the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, a Vancouver non-profit organization that is open to helping all, but specializes in advocating for the Chinese-Canadian residents of the city’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside. Established in 2015 as an outreach service for Chinese seniors, the Society has since grown their mandate to include workshops, healthcare talks and more.

For Beverly Ho, operations manager at Yarrow, one of the most important things for happy and engaged seniors is helping them keep themselves healthy.

The Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice is helping Chinese-Canadian seniors live their fullest lives. | Photo courtesy of Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice.

“Our flagship program or what we’re most known for […] is the Medical Accompaniment program that started before Yerrow was even a nonprofit,” says Ho. “[We] pair volunteers who speak Chinese languages with Chinese seniors in the neighbourhood who need interpretation for medical appointments, specialist or hospital appointments.”.

Ho says seniors really enjoy the program and interacting with staff and young people, and that volunteers and facilitators themselves get a lot out of the relationships that build as a result

“Seniors are really funny, [and] a lot of them are brutally honest, […] I feel very lucky to get to work with them and learn about them. A lot of them, their grandparents paid the [Chinese] Head Tax. Or they had different kinds of trauma whether from the Cultural Revolution or from poverty, or growing up as girls and women who do not have access to education or certain resources, says Ho.

“I learn a lot from them and I get to learn about my culture and my language. Not everyone has that privilege to access their own culture in a safe environment,” she added.

Continuous support since COVID-19

The society also launched a string of programs for their members during the pandemic to help both with feelings of isolation and to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19. Those included a culturally appropriate grocery delivery program called Nourishing Heart, and a program pairing younger adults with seniors for regular phone conversations.

And almost three years after the start of the pandemic, both programs are still in full swing.

“[The aim] was to reduce senior isolation during the pandemic, and encourage more intergenerational relationships,” said Ho of the phone pairing program. “We still have some folks who are still calling three years later. And a lot of them have met in person now… It’s great to hear updates from those folks,” Ho said.

But perhaps the seniors’ most loved program is the morning exercise session every Monday and Friday. The volunteers put in a tape on the radio that plays exercise instructions in Mandarin, and about 50 seniors come out consistently to participate.

“It’s been great to see seniors feel a sense of ownership with the program. They will come early, help set up, [and] help clean up. They tell us if someone is sick or that someone is going to China for a bit. […] It is also really easy for us to give announcements or have surveys to give out.”

Speaking of surveys, Ho pointed out that the seniors take them very seriously. A lot of seniors wrote several pages and treated it like homework that they needed to hand in in less than a week.

“I think they just feel a sense of ownership. [They think] ‘my feedback and my voice matters’, so they would want to do this,” says Ho.