Chinese America Elders Find Joy in Nursing Home--From Youth

Chinese America Elders Find Joy in Nursing Home--From Youth

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Photo: Sherry Ku (left) and some high school students interact with a resident of Live Oak rehab center. (Photos by Geoff Chin)

Part 1 of 2 articles.

LOS ANGELES--Pui Kwan Li was in the middle of her mahjong game with her friends when a group of high school students, all dressed in light-blue t-shirt and white pants, walked into the activity room. Their arrival put a smile on her face.

The activity room at the Live Oak Rehabilitation Center in San Gabriel, Calif., was quickly filled with nearly 30 residents, each with different chronic illnesses and each needing a different level of care. When the youths arrived they greeted the elders one-by-one.

Warming Up With Students

As the music started, the residents were encouraged to move their hands and body, and follow what the students do. “This warm-up exercise is always fun and served as ice-breaker as well,” said Sherry Ku, a volunteer from the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. She leads and organizes the activity, which usually includes 10-to-15 high school students, who visit the Live Oak Rehab Center on the last Sunday of each month.

Li, age 88, and her friends moved their hands from the mahjong table to the air, tried to catch up with each movement. They enjoyed the music, and more importantly, they enjoyed the company of the young people.

Her daughter, Amy, and her granddaughter were also in the audience. Amy drops by to visit her mother every day and sometimes shares a meal with her. “My Mom used to live with my Dad in Glendale,” she said, “and we hired two caregivers to take care of them. They both had aging-related chronic diseases. However, there were many problems, including abusive behavior and unprofessional services from the caregivers.”

After Amy’s father died, she and her siblings decided to send their mother to nursing home. It was a difficult decision, mainly because of traditional Chinese filial piety values, where children are expected to stay with and take care of their aging parents.

“Sending away your parents is considered unfilial, but my Mom wasn’t getting good care while she stayed at home 24 hours with a caregiver,” she added.

‘Mom Is Happier Now’

Li, who lives with dementia and chronic heart problem, moved into the Live Oak facility last November. Amy said her mother resisted in the beginning, but she oon adapted to the new environment, and in fact has started to enjoy it. She has more like-age friends to hang out with, get better medical care and attention around the clock, and get visits from not only family members, but also community groups.

“I can tell my Mom is happier now. I really appreciate that they bring the school kids here; it would be nice if they could come more often,” Amy commented.

Sherry Ku started to bring college and high school students to visit the nursing home about six years ago. According to Ku, not many youth have their grandparents around here, “so we want to show them how to provide compassionate care to the elders. By reaching out to the elder, these high school and college students learn more about filial piety and respect for elders, while the elders can enjoy the happiness of a family union.”

Mikayla Hwee, a ninth-grade student at Arcadia High School, was part of the group. She enjoyed spending time at the facility and interact with the elders. Her mother, Ivy Hwee said this activity helps students learn about the importance of love, care and respect for the elders.

“My daughter has changed a lot,” said Ivy. “After participating in community services, she realized how lucky she was after serving less fortunate people, and complained less about things in life as she learned not to take them for granted.”

Music and Memories

For Rick Huang, who graduated from the University of Southern California, it was a different experience. He played guitar for the elders. “Some of them are not be able to speak or interact with people, but it is interesting to see when they are responsive to music. Somehow I believe this bring joyfulness to their life,” he said.

In addition to the students who sing and dance for the elders, Linda Zhou and Ward Lu were there playing Chinese instruments, the guzheng (Chinese zither) and dizi (bamboo flute). They played Chinese folk songs and popular songs by Teresa Teng, which are well-remembered by the elders from when they were younger.

Lu said, “These songs often resonate with them and evoke memories of their youthful lives. I’m glad I have the opportunity to perform for them.”

At age 94, Chan Ken Huang considers himself a “happy and lucky” man. He enjoyed the performance and at the end of each song applauded wildly and called out “bravo.”

Huang 94.png 

Photo: Chan Ken Huang (left) is 94 years old. 

Huang recalled he was among the first group of Tzu Chi volunteers in the United States some 30 years ago. Grateful for the volunteers who visit them every month, he declared, “This is the best medicine of all.”

Rosa Frausto, the social services director at Live Oak, said staff at the facility provide many different activities for their residents. But it is important to have community-based organizations, especially children, to come visit the elders.

“Many of our residents really look forward to this monthly activity; no doubt it helps to improve the quality of life of the elders,” Frausto said.

Face-to-Face Visits Are Best

Researchers in aging have found that face-to-face visits with friends or family can reduce the risk of depression for older adults.

“We’ve known for a long time that social contact and support is healthy,” said Alan Teo, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University. A study he coauthored in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (November 2015) begins to answer key questions by figuring out the mental health effects of how you connect with people. “It suggests that it is hard to beat a good, old-fashioned face-to-face visit,” said Teo, the study’s lead author.

In addition, according to Kathy Black, PhD, a researcher at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, interaction with children helps older adults connect. “Connecting with younger children brings back positive memories for the older adults,” she said.

As usual, the one-hour monthly visit ends with a birthday celebration and cake-cutting ceremony. While not every resident remembers his or her own birthday, most of them know they have to wait for another month before they get to see these youngsters again.

For Li and her friends, they return to their daily routine after enjoying a piece of cake, handled out by the students. For them, there’s always mahjong games between the monthly visits.

Geoff Chin wrote this two-part series for America Commercial New/Media Central, published in Chinese, with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Commonwealth Fund.