Culturally specific day programs improve seniors’ mental health but more are needed, advocates say

With her cane in hand and a gray scarf wrapped around her, 87-year-old Amar Johal eagerly peers out the window, waiting for a handyDART bus to arrive.

She’s ready for a day of prayer, exercise, balloon badminton, and meeting with her peers.

“I really like it. My friends are there…I’m so happy,” she says in Punjabi.

Johal has dementia and is one of 11 seniors attending the South Asian Day Program for Older Adults. The new program at Abbotsford allows South Asian seniors to interact with Punjabi-speaking staff. Seniors participate in therapeutic recreational activities and receive health monitoring assistance, says Gurvina Mund, a registered nurse at Fraser Health.

While day programs give both seniors and caregivers a break, advocates say there is a greater need for cultural programs to serve a diverse, aging BC population and help seniors feel more comfortable, independent and mentally sharp when they emerge from the pandemic isolation.

BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie describes the number of culture-specific daytime programs as “very, very, few”.

“Creating opportunities for seniors to connect with other seniors who speak the same language, who eat the same food, who have had the same experiences is very important, and I think we’re going to need more,” Mackenzie said .

Punjabi-speaking staff conduct activities to keep seniors comfortable and engaged. (CBC News)

There are around 125 day programs for adults in BC. Of these, three are culturally specific in the Lower Mainland, alongside programs in Vancouver for Jewish seniors and in Chilliwack for Indigenous elders, according to the BC Department of Health

overcome language barriers

Language barriers can make it difficult for immigrant seniors to socialize and feel comfortable in programs that aren’t culturally specific, Mund says.

“The advantage is that they speak their language. We’re trying to integrate how they were raised, so we relate it to them.”

Seniors play balloon badminton at the Khalsa Diwan Society gurdwara in Abbotsford. (CBC News)

Bobbie Binning, a recreational therapist at the Khalsa Diwan Society’s gurdwara in Abbotsford, leads exercises in Punjabi while the seniors sit in a circle. She says the activities offer a mental break from the pandemic isolation that many seniors are still experiencing.

“I think the biggest benefit was definitely just socializing with them. I think that has helped her mental health immensely.”

For seniors like Johal with dementia, previous research has shown that participating in adult daytime programs can help reduce stress and reduce sleep problems and behavior problems at home like agitation, according to Jennifer Baumbusch, associate professor of nursing at the University of BC, who Daily programs explored.

“There are tremendous health benefits.”

Greater need for culturally sensitive programs

Jas Cheema, senior advocate at the BC Association of Community Response Networks, believes more programs are needed to meet the needs of a diverse aging population in the province.

The Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society (PICS), which runs a day program for South Asians in Surrey, said it started with 10 places for its day program and has had to double it due to demand.

“More places are needed. If they allow us, maybe we could bring in another 100. We just don’t have the capacity,” said Satbir Singh Cheema, CEO of PICS.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s SUCCESS day program, which caters to Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking seniors, among others, says demand is high but language barriers are preventing more seniors from attending day programs across the province.

“It is important to reach out to these underserved communities to ensure they understand what is available to them,” said Queenie Choo, CEO of SUCCESS

The Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) Society in Surrey said it needed to double its capacity for the daytime program from 10 to 20 places. (Baneet Braich/CBC News)

According to a BC Seniors Advocate report, 1,245 seniors were waiting for day programs in 2017, compared to 1,503 in 2019. It is not clear how many of these were intended for culture-specific daytime programs.

The Department of Health says funding was increased in 2019-2020 before the pandemic, increasing available daytime programs for adults by about 20 percent from 2016-17. It said day programs had been temporarily closed during the pandemic but would resume.

The province said in a statement that it is committed to the continued success and funding of these operations

According to Cheema, the solution for multi-day programs is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

She says it’s important to have “a language they can understand, activities they did when they were children,” as well as intercultural aspects so that seniors learn about other cultures as well.

According to Cheema, culture-specific day programs provide seniors with independence from the household and prevent burnout among caregivers.

Independence improves mental health

Independence is the main reason why Bal Mangat wanted her mother, Amar Johal, to join the program.

“I didn’t want my mother to be held back and put in a corner and ignored.”

Because Mangat was working and her children were at school, her mother often stayed home alone.

“Now that her knees are weak, the movement is difficult, she is at home all day, sometimes she is alone in the house and I feel guilty that she is sitting alone.”

She says it’s a relief to see her mother, who has dementia, coming home with crafts and stories from her time.

“It was like my kids used to do it when they went to daycare. And now my mother does it. So it’s just really cute.”

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