Last Wednesday, we made our 2nd visit to Bayside Community Center since the first time we did Zumba there in winter quarter. This time we engaged in our first Learning Exchange Groups (LEGs) with the seniors at Bayside, where we shared stories of our lives at 20 within small groups. It was really nice to see some of the seniors from our Zumba visit stay and talk more with us. I got the opportunity to talk with Tammy, a lovely Filipino woman. She immediately had a story ready to tell once our small group gathered around her. When Tammy was in her 20’s, she had a very unexpected visit from the First Lady of the Philippines at the time, Imelda Marcos, at the antique shop where she was working. Tammy told us about the complete disbelief and surrealness of the moment, because it was just another ordinary day at work for her. Then all of a sudden, the First Lady walks in and starts shopping for antiques! Tammy shared that this was one of the highlights of her 20’s because she absolutely adored and respected the First Lady as a leader and a woman. We also learned that while working at the antique shop, her boss sent her to travel all over Europe to visit museums and galleries looking at antiques and art. Through out our conversation with Tammy, I was really impressed by her detailed storytelling. She was able to remember the smallest details like the weather and day of the week. It also made my day seeing how interested she was about learning about each of our lives too. She listened intently to what each of us had to share about our 20 journey, asked questions, and was very encouraging and affirming. Afterwards she even asked us to write down our names so she can remember us, and we also took a group photo. The entire exchange was very heartwarming and wholesome. Conversations like that remind me that the older generation has so much to share having lived their full lives, having experienced more than we can imagine and we have so much to learn from them.
This past Wednesday marked our first class of Spring Quarter. It was really nice to see everyone again and hearing about everyone's spring break adventures. Last quarter, we left off discussing our Healthy Aging Projects (HAPs), which we'll be focusing on a lot more this quarter. I'm really excited about my HAP which I'll be working on with 6 other LCS'ers. We'll be working to put on an intergenerational "walk-a-thon". I was drawn to this idea because it's a great opportunity to encourage older folks to get active and stay active, which is essential to healthy aging. It's an opportunity to show folks that physical activity and being active is as simple as taking a stroll every week with friends or family. I hope that this event will bring people together not only to promote wellness and the importance of an active life, but also to make connections and create a community around this activity. Initially for our HAP proposal, we planned to put on a 1-day formal walk-a-thon event that would be about 2 miles in length, held at a San Diego park venue (such as Mission Bay or Balboa). But after speaking with Professor Lewis and Bussell, and hearing back from the venues we realized that we are very restricted in our timeline. Though we have a group of 7, executing a formal event that would uphold our vision within a month's time will be challenging and difficult. After discussing these drawbacks, the direction of our HAP is to have a more informal walking social that will still embody all of our goals for this project. With this new direction, we hope that it can be an event that is continued past the one day. Despite the barriers facing us, I'm very excited for the outcome!
On Tuesday February 26th, the Life Course Scholars held a dance event for the seniors at the Casa de Manana living community in La Jolla. I was a part of the planning committee for the event, which was rock 'n' roll themed. To be honest, I wasn't sure how to feel about planning this event after seeing how luxurious Casa was during our first visit. I didn't feel like the seniors at Casa needed events like this because they are already wealthy and privileged living there. This was reflected in the planning process. Our planning group had minimal tasks to complete for the event compared to the West Center prom planning group. Other than selecting the decorations and setting up the raffle, the staff members at Casa de Manana handled the rest. They had all the resources to do so.
Despite being skeptical leading up to the dance, I enjoyed the night and was really glad to see the seniors enjoying it too. There was a live band that kept the energy up throughout the night (though with a questionable setlist of oldies). I greeted folks as they came in and handed out raffle tickets, so I got to see many of their faces light up as they walked in and saw the decorations, photobooth, and even when receiving a raffle ticket. My favorite part was seeing some of the seniors wearing photobooth props like oversized glasses and leis throughout the whole night, and taking photobooth polaroids with the other Life Course Scholars. The turnout was a lot higher than I expected, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the room nearly filled. The dance floor, to be brutally honest, was a little awkward because most of the seniors were sitting down instead of dancing. It was an effort to get some of the couples to dance but they said they enjoyed watching us dance. Everyone seemed to be having a good time where they were which is still a success. All in all, I think it was a successful night and I'm really looking forward to the West Center prom next weekend.
This past Wednesday February 20th, we continued with oral history presentations and the second book presentation for This Chair Rocks by Ashton Applewhite. Following the trend from last week's presentations, this week's presentations were so diverse and creative. Many individuals shared histories of their parents and grandparents, most of whom were immigrants to the US from all over the world. The physical projects created were amazing and incredibly thoughtful. There was a wide range of creations, including a handmade dream catcher, a custom cookbook, and a restaurant "menu". Though I didn't get to present this week, I left class feeling really inspired by the stories that everyone shared thus far. I'm excited to share my mother's story next week.
Next, we had a discussion on the book "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism" led by the second book group.
Our class discussion reiterated ideas and strategies against ageism from the previous week. Everything from media to the physical infrastructure of buildings can reinforce ageist ideals. Media, especially social media platforms, is a powerful and constant source of pressure on people to keep their appearance youthful. It incessantly reminds us of the beauty standards we're expected to uphold, which places most of the burden on women. We discussed the importance of intersectionality within ageism, because it often affects women more negatively than men. Older women face a lot more pressure to maintain a youthful appearance than older men, and face more backlash for not doing so. This sexist ageism is especially prevalent in professions that are often in the public eye. For example, older female personalities will get criticized for their wrinkles and graying hair, while older men of the same age are viewed as being more "wise" and respected as they age. Though we do live in the most progressive era than ever before in terms of representation, I think there is still a lot of work to be done in order to dismantle the hegemonic ageist ideals. Building a society that is as inclusive as possible, while valuing every life equally may sound impossibly idealistic, but I think that even small, individual actions can move us forward. It starts with the language and words that we use, the content we share and support online, the businesses we support, and most importantly the stories that we choose to hear.
On Wednesday February 13th, we had a jam packed schedule of back-to-back presentations. First, the current event presenters shared their pieces on social isolation among older adults. Two different solutions based on existing models in the US were discussed. The first was an intergenerational program that pairs older folks with younger roommates in a shared living arrangement. The other model took on the premise of the show "Golden Girls", in which seniors can live together in a co-housing community. I think both concepts can be effective in combatting the common problem of social isolation among seniors, especially in high density urban areas. But from my personal perspective, I think co-housing may pose more challenges in terms of accessibility (financial) and feasibility (needed infrastructure).
Senior co-housing may be a good solution for some, but it doesn't address equity issues regarding senior housing, largely because it does not seem that accessible to many people. Intergenerational living arrangements can promote a positive perspective on aging, especially one that does not separate or isolate older folks as a whole from the rest of society.
After an insightful discussion on social isolation, my book group presented our book "Selling the Fountain of Youth" by Ariene Weintraub. Weintraub exposes the anti-aging industry as a fradulent, money-hungry ploy that takes advantage of society's desire to remain as youthful as possible to avoid the effects of aging. I found Weintraub's book surprising, especially learning about all of the ridiculous claims and arguments made by the anti-aging industry. She proves that the industry is not rooted in legitimate biological evidence, yet many people still believe and trust those claims because the faces of the industry are "doctors" which was pretty concerning.
We also had our first round of oral history presentations. I was blown away with everyone's stories of their extraordinary partners. It was really cool to see the diverse backgrounds and cultures we have within this program. I'm looking forward to hearing all of the oral histories and seeing more beautiful projects in the coming week. We finished the day meeting with our NAP groups. My group is assessing Hillcrest, and I'm excited to do our site visits because Hillcrest is one of my favorite places in San Diego. All in all, it was a busy week with more exciting events and presentations to come.
I finally got the chance to present my oral history project in class last Wednesday February 27th , which was about my mother Irene. I was a little nervous to present because I wanted to do her story justice and I was afraid that I'd get too emotional and cry (I did). My mom means the world to me, and ever since I've been in college away from home we've gotten a lot closer but it's also made it harder for us to talk. The distance has made me appreciate her a lot more, now just the thought of what an amazing and selfless mother she is makes me tear up.
Of all the memories that she shared with me, she wanted me to share her memory of being a refugee of the Vietnam War in class. I created a giant red envelope which holds the memoir pages, in celebration of Chinese New Year's to give to my mom. It was also a way for me to showcase my family's culture, and make up for not being able to go home during the holiday. Before this project, I knew very little about my mom's family and her roots. My knowledge from what she told me were vague bits and pieces from distant memories, and sometimes they wouldn't really fit. It was the same case with my dad, so I grew up pretty confused about my heritage, even until entering college. One important thing I gained from this oral history project was a stronger sense of my own identity, and a stronger connection to my roots after learning more about my mother's early life.
The reason I grew up confused about my culture and heritage is the fact that I grew up with both Chinese and Vietnamese culture: eating Chinese and Vietnamese food at home and at family parties, always hearing both languages, and celebrating a mix of traditions. Outside of the food and language, the values, beliefs and traditions of the two are extremely similar and intertwined. Both my parents were born and raised in Vietnam, but both are ethnically Chinese. When I was younger, up until high school, I never knew what to say when people asked me "what I am". It was complicated to explain and when I did, people didn't really understand, so I defaulted to saying Chinese-Vietnamese. Growing up in the US, I felt that as a cultural minority you had to fit into a box to make it easier for people to understand. It was a weird, ambiguous thing I didn't know how to navigate because I didn't know much about my heritage. But through interviewing my mom, I learned that her grandparents originally immigrated from China to Vietnam. They thrived in the Chinatown of Saigon, Vietnam along with other Chinese minorities in Vietnam. This group of Chinese minorities in Vietnam became known as the Hoa people.
After learning more about my mom's experience growing up Chinese in Vietnam, everything I knew about my culture made sense. In the same way I grew up Chinese-American, my mother grew up Chinese-Vietnamese. I now feel a sense of pride revolving around my cultural background, because I realize how unique this blended Chinese-Vietnamese heritage is. It originated from this single, small Chinatown community in Vietnam, but as a result of the Vietnamese diaspora throughout the 1970s-80s this unique culture exists in communities all over the US and probably the world.
There is very limited literature on the Hoa people, which is why documenting my mom's life means even more to me now. Being born and raised in the US, you start to lose parts of your cultural identity due to Americanization in school and "white-washing". If these histories aren't shared or passed on, they became endangered of being erased. I'm extremely grateful for this opportunity to create my mother's memoir to prevent this from happening, and I can't wait for the day I can share it with my kids and grand kids so they too can know their heritage.
This past Wednesday, we finally returned to the classroom for our usual meeting time. The past 3 weeks have been filled with engaging and fun site visits and tours around San Diego, while I really enjoyed these mini field trips, I enjoyed being back inside for the change of pace. Although overall, our class period felt like it was going a lot slower than usual compared to those site visits.
We started class with our first round of current event presentations. One of the groups’ brought up the topic of caretaker burnout which I thought was interesting because it’s an aspect of health care that isn’t acknowledged much if at all. It’s often overlooked because I think the role of caregiving for most people is associated with family duties within a household or family unit, so some may fail to see as a field that deserves credibility and recognition that other health care professions have. But many fail to see, and I’ve seen it first hand with my grandma, that caregiving for an older adult is a full time affair that requires intensive mental, emotional, and physical labor. The responsibilities involved can sometimes parallel that some nursing care facilities provide. More support is definitely needed for this unseen group, which is growing, and I think compensation or stipend programs for family caregivers should be a large part of that. These programs can be implemented through health insurance be or Medicare to alleviate some of the burden on these individuals.
Following the current event presentations, we had a jam packed agenda discussing the upcoming assignments and deadlines. To be honest, all of the looming deadlines have been in the back of my mind in the face of midterm season, and the scarce classroom time in the past month. I hadn’t realized that the next few weeks will be packed with presentations and events (oral history, book presentation, group HAPs, NAPs). It was like that splash-of-water-in-the-face reminder of the quarter system’s relentless pace. It was a little overwhelming at the beginning, but after talking to others during the short break, I wasn’t the only one. I’m relieved knowing that we’re all in this struggling college life together.
On Wednesday January 30th, I started my morning with a nice peaceful stroll along La Jolla’s shoreline with a few other LCS’ers. There was a cool coastal breeze, the sun was shining bright, and sea lions lounging by the Children’s Pool. It wasn’t even 10am yet and this morning was already a perfect paradise compared to my whole week. But seniors living at the Casa de Mañana housing community across the street can soak in this view every day. After our walk, we walked over to Casa de Mañana for a tour of their housing community. After touring the affordable housing options for low income seniors in Downtown the past weekend, seeing Casa de Mañana was a complete 180. I already had a sense of what it’d be like before coming since it’s located at a prime spot in La Jolla, which is already a very affluent and privileged area. But seeing it in person was still shocking. Case de Mañana is like an all inclusive resort for elder adults and then some. If you can afford it, of course.
The average education level of the senior residents at Casa is a graduates degree. The demographic is mostly white, some Asians, and a lot of couples. I wasn’t surprised considering where we were, and considering the usual determinants of high socioeconomic status. To be honest, I was conflicted and uncomfortable throughout the tour of Casa’s amenities and offerings. Conflicted in the sense that I felt troubled by the huge difference in standard of living of seniors in Downtown and Casa, but I couldn’t help but be in awe of the luxury of the place. I was uncomfortable because it seemed like my classmates and I were the only people of color walking around Casa at the time, and this observation made me confront the troubling systemic issues that allow this level of inequity to exist within a 15 mile radius.
After hearing the stories of a few senior residents at Casa, I was amazed at the experiences and lives they’ve lived. They were all college educated, born in the US, and white. At Serving Seniors’ West Center, I remember all of the seniors I spoke to were immigrants to the US, and all were minorities. This trend is true across all aspects of life: the same groups benefit while the same groups suffer. And this is at no fault of their own; our system and cities are built upon barriers that widen these gaps between groups. With our aging population, addressing the quality of long term care and access to these resources for older adults is especially critical to knocking these barriers down. Casa de Mañana is a wonderful place, and I’m sure everyone there deserves to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But having seen the other side, the reality of inequality is a hard seed to swallow.
On Saturday January 26th, we had the opportunity to tour the various affordable housing options for seniors in Downtown San Diego. At our first stop, we got to reconnect with the Serving Seniors organization at their senior housing facilities Potiker Senior Residence and the Sara Francis Hometel. At Potiker, we got an overview of the Serving Seniors’ housing program and got the chance to meet one of the current residents. I wasn’t surprised hearing that the waitlists for a unit are hundreds of people long, and many seniors wait a minimum of several years before getting housing. Although these housing units are affordable compared to the San Diego housing market with rent ranging from $300-$700/month, for these seniors living at the poverty level that’s a huge chunk of their income. Even with these affordable options, they are only left with a couple hundred dollars or less for other necessary expenses. But after speaking with Irene, one of the Potiker residents, I learned the situation could actually be much worse.
We went up to Irene’s room, which was juuust big enough for our group of 10 to squeeze in. She told us about her past experiences in nursing homes and the terrible bed bug infestations that happen at many senior housing facilities. Just hearing about those unlivable conditions and the thought of my own grandma living in one of those gave me shivers all over. Though Potiker is not by any means a paradise home, Irene expressed that she was overall pretty content with her life at Potiker because she’s met many other residents from all walks of life. It’s definitely been better than her other experiences.
After Potiker we to the Sara Francis Hometel, which is also run by Serving Seniors. Unlike Potiker, Sara Francis is an SRO (single room occupancy) motel designated for the temporary transitional housing program. The difference in conditions between the 2 facilities was very stark. The overall atmosphere at Sara Francis was very depressing, unwelcoming, and unsafe. The hallways were dim and beaten, and had a weird smell. Residents here have to share a small communal bathroom. We were told that there have been serious bed bug issues as well. Yet, the rent at Sara Francis is still more than what I’m paying for a nice, shared apartment in La Jolla. Though the program at Sara Francis is technically only 3-6 months for transitioning, many stay much longer because there simply isn’t anywhere else for them to go. This is the same issue with the waitlists at Potiker and everywhere else; residents can’t leave because there isn’t affordable housing available anywhere else in San Diego.
The rest of the stops during our tour made me a little more hopeful. A couple of the complexes we visited, Celadon and Atmosphere, looked like modern luxury apartments from the outside because of the modern architecture. It made me rethink my perspective on what can be made “affordable housing”; these 2 show that there really is no limit. Celadon was probably my favorite housing project because it’s not only for seniors, but also foster youth aging out and adults struggling with mental health. It promotes and supports a multi-generational living community among those with common struggles. In addition to this, the design of the complex is sustainable with LEEDS certification. When successful, sustainable, and affordable housing models like Celadon exist, it helps push the standard for other affordable housing projects to follow.
The North Park Senior Housing we visited for LGBTQ+ seniors is an example of this coming to fruition. The North Park project also upholds open, intentional, and sustainable design. There are features that allow seniors to easily age in place, like the color coded stories for memory, and wide corridors with handrails to increase accessibility. Though the North Park project seemed almost perfect with its colorful and inclusive features, I didn’t feel as if this project was affordable. Sylvia, our tour guide, mentioned that the rent is about $1100 for a single room apartment, which is just as much as it would cost in La Jolla. However, the North Park senior residence is subsidized by the FHA, and by their standards affordable is relative to the location of the project. Since North Park is a more expensive area of San Diego, the rent here can be considered affordable by these standards.
But, does that really solve the problem of available affordable housing? After the long morning touring the different housing projects, I couldn’t help but notice all of the surrounding high-rise apartments being newly developed in Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. Given the conditions and challenges that affordable housing projects already face, the housing crisis, and a growing homeless population, how do these expensive luxury apartments keep popping up? It made me wonder about the city’s role in regulating the housing market. Though new complexes are being built all over San Diego, it doesn’t seem like they’re being filled because of the prices. It made me curious about the current regulations and policies on rent control, and the drivers of this market based system that consistently leaves many people out of the equation. And almost always it is those that are most vulnerable.
Intentional. Holistic. Diverse. These are the words that I would use to describe the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in Downtown SD after visiting this past Wednesday. The center is run by the Serving Seniors non-profit organization, whose focus is on supporting seniors in poverty. This is the first time I’ve heard of such a place that wasn’t a nursing home. The center itself is far from a nursing home; it’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a nursing home. Typically with senior centers, one would make the association with total bleakness: no color, no joy, gross conditions, and strange smells with unidentified sources.
The West Center has made gracious efforts to combat these stereotypes and reinvent the idea of a senior center. Its modern architecture and interior design are accentuated by high ceilings, natural lighting, and warm and bright colored walls. It’s inviting and warm. “We wanted to make it feel like a college campus…we want people to want to come here”, said Serving Seniors Paul Downey during our tour. And what he said was reflected while we were there. The waiting room and lobby were packed with seniors all awaiting the 3 lunch sessions provided at the center. The intentionality of the design was seemingly very effective and it shone through all other parts of the center.
One feature that especially stood out to me was the format of the 2nd floor, where all the social and health services are located. Social workers, legal support, mental health support, and a health clinic are all in one place. The offices of these professionals have been strategically placed in one hallway, creating what Paul calls a “hand-off system”. This eliminates huge barriers that often prevent low-income seniors from getting services, which may include transportation or forgetfulness. These seniors are more likely to get all of the services that need to stay afloat and healthy because they can be easily handed off from one professional to the next in one visit. It’s a simple yet effective concept that increases access, and should be done in more places serving low-income populations. It not only increases access, but also creates a collaborative, holistic, and interdisciplinary environment that is working towards a single goal.
Though the West Center is far from perfect and their capability to help everyone is limited, the initiative and thoughtfulness of their programs gave me hope, something I rarely have now in our current political climate. But this visit was a breath of fresh air. And getting the chance to meet and talk with some of the seniors during lunch gave me a look at the outreach that Serving Seniors has, as well as its diversity. I spoke to seniors who immigrated from literally all over the world: Philippines, Ethiopia, China, Mexico, Peru. The diversity of this group is a reflection of the aging populations that exist in our country today. Despite their differences, there is a common struggle to find support and to be seen. The West Center gave me hope because they provide a safe, warm, healthy space for these forgotten seniors to age no matter where you come from or what your circumstances led you here. They take you in and say “I see you, and I will support you”.