August 1, 2017
A Day at the Golden Age Senior Center
Boston – Four mornings a week, a van scoops up Chung-Au Loi Tai and delivers her to the senior center for a full schedule of activities. The 1:30 bingo game is her favorite.
She giggles when she explains why: she likes the Chinese Rice Biscuits that are handed out as prizes.
She is one of 350 mostly low-income clients of the Greater Boston Golden Age Center’s three locations around Boston. Most came to this country from China decades ago and raised families while working in Chinatown or the suburbs. Chung-Au, for example, worked in a shoe factory for nine years, and her late husband cooked in restaurants all over the city.
Now in old age, the Golden Age Center’s community of like-minded people spend their days learning English, new songs, and calligraphy, eating $2 lunches – a “suggested” donation – and getting help with their medical and other needs from the nurse and social workers on staff.
Finding things to do all day might seem trivial to working people – there are barely enough hours in a day. But the center’s carefully planned activities are critical to seniors’ physical and mental health and to their families, who are still out working. One big reason for these daily visits is to prevent the frail or cognitively impaired from becoming too isolated.
The Golden Age Center and similar centers around the country make up a patchwork of often poorly funded non-profit and local-government agencies that quietly fill a big need in the safety net for seniors. These agencies provide an array of services, including transportation, meals, exercise, medical supervision, and cognitive stimulation. The federal Medicaid program pays the Golden Age Center a per-day fee for its low-income clients.
Ruth Moy, the executive director who founded the center in 1972, raises additional money from donations and other federal and local government programs. “There is never enough money,” Moy said. “You just keep plugging away.”
Andy Achenbaum, a University of Houston professor emeritus of social work, argues that the provision for senior day care is very haphazard, and financial supports for these important centers “do not always complement one another in a cohesive, integrated manner.” In an interview, he blamed this on a combination of society’s general “ageism,” a scarcity of funds, and the fact that “nobody wants to think about” getting old.
The Golden Age Center in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton is run by Lili Mei. Mei uses her ease with three languages besides English – Mandarin, Cantonese and the traditional Toishanese – to keep the place running smoothly and to talk with her clients. She shares her first-floor office in an old house with the staff nurse, Beiling Shen, who describes her duties as “everything.” Shen advises seniors on medical problems, monitors their medications, and acts as liaison to their doctors. Social workers handle their applications to federal aid programs. Another staff member, Andrew Chu, a case worker and activity coordinator, described his job as trying “to keep everybody happy.”
Volunteers are also crucial for providing services. Since retiring, Ling Lu has taught English lessons at the center. She emigrated from the city of Wuhan in 1994 and worked as a home health aide in Boston until she found a job entering data for Bank of America. Her English lessons at the center sometimes take the form of songs, which the seniors perform on Fridays for visitors. For the July 4 holiday, they sang “America the Beautiful” – in English. On a recent afternoon, they practiced a Chinese song that roughly translates, “Life is like the sun.”
Lu believes the one-time immigrants here face a unique set of challenges. Most of them spoke little English when they arrived but worked hard to send their children to college. Now their children are, like most modern families, busy and can’t spend all day caring for their parents.
In contrast to China, where offspring care for their parents, Lu said, in this country, “They have no time to take care of the parents, so the senior center is very nice.”
Lin Tai Wong, age 97, comes here four days a week. She pulls a well-worn wedding photograph from China out of her wallet. She explains (with Mei translating Wong’s Cantonese into English) that she followed her husband to the United States after World War II. Phillip Wong died in 1992, but their five children remain in the area.
Wong doesn’t like air conditioning, so she sits at a table in the wide second-floor hallway, walled off from air conditioned activity rooms on either side. She talks with people who walk by or reads the Chinese newspapers.
Today, she is complying with the center staff’s request that she roll plastic knives and forks into napkins in preparation for the day’s lunch. That’s another important role for the center: making Wong feel useful.
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