Doris Chow – Seniors Programmer, Carnegie Community Centre
July 6, 2020
Doris Chow has been working in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community for over ten years. Currently, she works at the Carnegie Community centre as a seniors programmer. Because of her experience in the neighbourhood, over the many years she’s gotten to learn a lot more about the circumstances facing Chinese seniors and has come to learn that, although there’s a large population of Chinese seniors living in the DTES, there are not many people working in the front lines who can speak their language. She states that Chinese seniors gravitate towards her because she can speak the language – Cantonese specifically.
In an effort to ease the loneliness and isolation faced by many seniors due to COVID-19 isolation orders, Doris created a bingo game specifically for Chinese seniors. The game features personal and introspective activities, such as “Look into the mirror. What do you like most about yourself? Write it down.” and “Write a letter to your younger self”. Below, she discusses the creation of the bingo game as well as the importance of community, connection, and dignity for seniors during a time of fear and vulnerability.
This interview took place on July 6th, 2020 and as such, some of the information discussed below was true at this time, but may currently be different.
Sydney: What are some of the issues that Chinese seniors are facing in the DTES at the moment, and how have they been affected by the pandemic?
Doris: I would say that some of the issues are poverty, of course, in the DTES. But in a bit more of a nuanced way, it’s the invisibility of poverty. There’s a lot of assumptions that Asian people do not face poverty because we see them with foreign ownership, they buy all the big houses and everything, and it really obscures the fact that we actually have people living with much lower incomes and in precarious housing situations. It isn’t really talked about, it’s only been in the past few years that it’s really coming to the forefront – and so that nuance is very important.
The language barrier is also a big one. A lot of the services in the DTES are geared towards people who can speak English. Again, there are only a handful of frontline workers who can speak Cantonese or Mandarin, and so the ability to access services if you do not understand English is very challenging. A lot of the cultural responsiveness of the services are not geared towards Chinese seniors, even though they make up such a large portion of the residents. And then, I guess for seniors generally, a lot of them are faced with loneliness and isolation, particularly with the pandemic. A lot of that has exacerbated all of these issues. On top of that there’s anti-Asian racism, there’s fear and anxiety that comes from seeing on the news that lots of seniors are the ones that are impacted most by COVID-19. And then one thing that’s not really talked about is the impact of the feeling of confinement. So, when we’re talking about seniors in everyday life pre-COVID, as soon as a senior maybe has a fall, or people deem them as being incapable or maybe they’re starting to get some onset dementia, there’s this idea that we need to confine them, that they need to move or we have to restrict what they do, and this really strips them of their dignity. I’ve heard time and time again, at the beginning of the pandemic particularly, that the kids of many of these seniors immediately went to tell them “don’t leave your house”, because of the fear that if a senior catches COVID, it means death. That message is already loud and clear over the news, and then to have your family members and your friends further entrench that message, the feeling of confinement and restriction and lack of dignity becomes very challenging.
Sydney: So, you created a bingo game for seniors – would you be able to explain the background of that? Was it meant specifically for the pandemic?
Doris: As someone who’s a bit younger, browsing social media during the isolation in place orders, I started seeing wellness bingos that were trying to keep people active, or practicing mindfulness. It gave me the idea of how to make something similar that was suitable for seniors as a way to engage them at a time when they don’t have the resources to be on social media and come across these kinds of things. So it was a result of the pandemic, but it may also become a longer term thing.
There’s a group called the Chinese Community Response Network made up of social service workers across Vancouver. We all work with Chinese seniors. For World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which was June 15th, the bingo game was included into a care package that was distributed across metro vancouver through the network as a way to connect with the seniors. The packages included things like face masks, resources, resource guides and a colouring book, that sort of thing – and also to have a touch-point with the seniors. We distributed 80 bingo games within the care packages for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and I mailed out another 75, and another roughly 20 will be distributed through another organization. Basically, people received these either through the mail or in person, and each bingo player has an activity for seniors to do on their own. So there are things like, “Go for a walk”. Some people have been too afraid to leave the house, so that’s an incentive to maybe go for a little bit of a walk. There’s some other more mindfulness activities, like “Write a letter to your younger self”, or “What is one thing that you’re worried about? Tell someone”. All of these activities have been selected to practice mindfulness and to improve mental health, and basically once the seniors cross off the activities and finish them all, there’s a stamp on the back for them to mail it back to me, and then I mail them back a gift card. It’s a lot of mailing back and forth.
Sydney: How have seniors responded to the bingo game?
Doris: There have been some seniors who have called me to ask for a second copy because they’re worried that once they mail me the original, they won’t have a copy for them to continue practicing the activities – which is really great because it shows that they feel there’s a benefit to the bingo game activities. The game is really for them to try something different. Some of the ideas for the activities were from learning about the benefits of practicing gratitude, like writing your gratitudes for the day, to practicing breathing – all these things that people like you and I would come across on a regular basis on social media or at conferences- but Chinese seniors don’t come across conversations about their mental health. Putting it into a game is something different and exciting for them. There are some cultural barriers to talking about mental health, and even concepts like mindfulness, so re-framing it in this way has been very positive. There was even one senior who was really, really sweet, as there’s one activity on there that says, “What are five things that you are grateful for?”, and she said “Ms. Chow, you should look in the mirror and be grateful for your parents for raising such a caring daughter”, and I was moved to tears. It was very, very sweet. That speaks to how, even before she had done the activity, it had a really positive impact on her – as someone who doesn’t have kids, doesn’t have family, and as someone who doesn’t really receive any mail. Receiving it was positive.
Sydney: Can you tell us more about the bingo questions?
Doris: In the past couple years, my colleague and I have been really interested in hearing people’s stories and their lasting legacies. So we’re living in this time where we’re surrounded by illness, disability, poverty, all these big negative things. When we hear of someone dying, we very rarely hear about their good stories. There’s so little dignity that’s afforded to people in this neighbourhood that I really wanted to highlight and build activities that bring dignity. There’s a practice that my colleague and I have been wanting to do for a long time, which is to have people tell us their happiest memories, or something that they want people to remember them by. Not that they overdosed by fentanyl, it’s not about having chronic health problems, or having died in their SRO, or having – you know, a lot of seniors are afraid of dying in their own room and having no one discover them until days later, which happens. That is what they’re afraid of. Them passing that memory on can hopefully make them feel like they left a legacy behind in that very, very small way.
I think some of them have closer friends than others, and some of them will even call me, and you know once we start talking and start telling me about, you know, about their family history or, occasionally they’ll talk about what they used to do. Even at the beginning of the pandemic when there were a few seniors that were saying what they did when they were in China as a doctor in Tibet, speaking of the things that they’ve lived through – this is just another thing. They start opening up once you give them the space. I think as they start rolling in, I’ll try to follow up with phone calls and ask them how they felt about doing these activities, if there were ones that were more difficult, asking if they’re open to telling me their favourite memory, or something that they’re worried about.
Sydney: Can you tell us more about how the bingo game has helped Chinese seniors through the pandemic?
Doris: They’re receiving something in the mail that isn’t anxiety inducing and that is tailored to them. Even if they throw it away, at the very least they’ve received something in the mail that they know has their name on it. At the most, they’ve engaged in activities that they’re not used to engaging in that are actually positive for their mental health and their emotional health and some of the activities are to build social connection with their families, friends, and themselves. To battle some of the loneliness and boredom, and fear that they have during this time. Some of them live outside of the DTES, but all of them have some sort of connection to the neighbourhood. A number of them are seniors that live outside of the neighbourhood, but volunteer, and have been volunteering with Carnegie for 10+ years. This is a place where they get their social connection and their engagement, and see friends, and volunteer on a regular basis. A few seniors have braved going on the bus, to come to Chinatown and do a big shop once in a while. Which is interesting, because there’s one particular senior I’m thinking of and she’s not that far from Chinese shops, but for some reason she says that she needs to buy something that she can only get in Chinatown – and i’m pretty positive that she can get it elsewhere. She’s been coming here for many, many years and when they’re in the neighbourhood they peek over into Carnegie to see if they can find me, or to see if the building is open. I think a lot of them feel that there’s definitely a sense of belonging here. There are familiar shops that they’ve been shopping at for probably decades, and going to these shops with family members. A lot of them know the shop keepers – they see the same people over and over. There’s a sense of comfort in that, for sure. In this very unpredictable time, to be able to go to a neighbourhood and know that they’re going to be there. There’s a sense of safety and comfort within that, absolutely.
These activities, you know, talking about what you’re grateful for, or standing at the window for thirty minutes waving to strangers. That’s a little different, even for me. I think that when we think about seniors, we infantilize them. We sort of say that they’re only capable of doing so much, or we dictate what’s suitable for seniors. You’d be surprised at how much they’re willing to stretch their comfort zone. I had a group of seniors who were doing improv, for goodness sake, and they benefit from that because it improves their mental health, their connection with everyone and building trust, creativity, and building their imagination in ways that they never thought they could. These are all giving seniors the dignity that we so often strip away from them.
Ali: What do you think the pandemic is gonna do to Chinese seniors’ relationship with Chinatown/the DTES?
Doris: The pandemic has really highlighted, in so many different ways, the urgency, the gaps, and the needs that exist and has amplified them so much. After the first panic, when everything first started shutting down, once we got into a little bit more of a steady state, when I was calling seniors or when they were calling me – they wanted to know what was going on on the streets. They were hearing it from all different sides: messages from the news of racism on the streets, that the shops were closed, that people were hoarding and all this kind of stuff – and they started asking me, what does it look like? What’s open? What’s not? They were really concerned about this area even though some of them don’t live here. They were worried about the safety of the shops, of me walking in the streets, of them potentially walking in the streets – and this feeling of a threat to a place that they find comfort in, was really interesting to see. The anxiety around everything going on, that they would be worried about windows being smashed in Chinatown. Of course that harks back to the older days of stuff. There is a bit of remembering of those times, and also of the very overt racism that some of the seniors have experienced in their lifetime. I haven’t been in Chinatown for that long because I’m first generation, and so I haven’t seen the changes as much as many of the seniors in the neighbourhood. But I remember when Daisy Garden burned down, and I remember the day that it was burning down, I was standing across the street for hours and hours just watching it burn. The feeling that I got watching that happen was that it was my own kitchen being burned down. Watching my own kitchen, or my own family home being burned down. It was the last place that my sister and I brought our grandmother for lunch. It was very, very heartbreaking to see all the memories, all the comfort that we had just walking into that place – where everybody knew us, knew my grandmother. And the comfort food that we would eat. The fact that the servers knew exactly what we wanted and would strike up a conversation, and when we weren’t with our grandmother they would ask us how she was. That all happened in this building, and in this place that was being burned to the ground, literally as I watched. So when we see smashed windows it represents something deeper for sure. The hard work that goes into building such a place, the relationship that happened within that building, and that place, and that business, and the comfort that people feel in those places – it’s priceless. It’s the Army & Navy where grandmother would ask what we want from there because it was seniors day. It was about how proud she was to go there or to go to Sunrise, and how people find dignity in those spaces and be recognized as a human being and be recognized, and be treated like normal people, and be able to go in and afford to buy something. There’s a lot of dignity in that, whereas in many other places people feel invisible or feel confined by being told that they can’t do something, that they can’t sleep there, or sit there, or to leave. That doesn’t happen at Army & Navy that much. That much, I should say – of course it has its limits. But there’s something to be said about that. Army & Navy has of course been around for over a hundred years, and my family grew up going to Army & Navy to go shopping. Army & Navy is the place where you would find affordable goods for families that every immigrant family has gone to to buy canned goods and food and clothing and bedding and was kind of like a one stop shop, kind of like how Woodwards was. There’s something about Army & Navy that a lot of seniors would go shopping for basic essentials because they were affordable. If you ever walked into Army & Navy, the customers were so diverse – there would be Chinese seniors and non-Chinese seniors, people from all different ethnic backgrounds shopping in literally every different department. It wasn’t just food, it was everything. People would furnish their homes with stuff from Army & Navy. It’s gonna be a big gap for people in the neighbourhood.
Bill: Is there concern that some of the shops they used to go to prior to the pandemic might not be open after the pandemic?
Doris: For sure. When Sunrise closed, everyone panicked about whether or not it was gonna be permanent. That was really scary for people on multiple levels. Army & Navy was very, very concerning and continues to be concerning, for everyone. A lot of the smaller restaurants – you know, some of them people have been fearful of them potentially closing down for good after so many years and have jumped to supporting them even more, which is great. In some cases, their business has increased because of that fear and because of being confined in this neighbourhood and re-discovering, in a way, almost like that whole ‘you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it’. This dangling threat of loss kind of got everyone to re-discover the neighbourhood, and come back with even more passion to support these businesses, like bakeries and produce shops. Many of them have already closed but even thinking about how there’s less than a handful of them left – if they go there’s the threat of the whole neighbourhood potentially going.
Bill: Can you tell us more about the importance of Sunrise Market? It’s a place we’ve been hearing a lot about in our other interviews.
Doris: Sunrise Market is a store where you can find so many diverse shoppers from so many different backgrounds, both from within the neighbourhood and outside of the neighbourhood. They’ve always prided themselves in providing affordable fresh food for the neighbourhood, so many Chinese seniors who live in the neighbourhood depend on Sunrise where they can access fresh vegetables. Even people who are homeless can go to Sunrise and be able to afford something fresh to eat, and in a way, there’s something kind of magical about that. And then of course there’s been like the real housewives of Vancouver who went there to shop for her restaurant. It’s just so different! Sunrise also employs a lot of Chinese seniors to package the food and sort through everything, and then you have Chinese seniors shopping there and filling up their baskets. It’s really awesome. I shop there all the time!
Bill: What’s next for you?
Doris: The Bingo game version that I made so far is for Chinese seniors, because it was originally for distribution with the Chinese Community Response Network, but I’m now in the process of making one for non-Chinese seniors and tailoring some of the activities for them. There’s also a number of seniors in the community who love to write – write poetry, and love to journal. So I was thinking of doing like a thirty day writing challenge that also incorporates some of these things. And then we’re planning on doing some care packages for the mid-autumn festival. Mid-autumn festival is a big celebration in Chinese culture where families get together, embracing the idea that everyone is looking at the same moon and being connected by that. So we were thinking of putting together some packages to distribute to seniors in celebration of the festival, because there’s a bit of anticipation for a second-wave of COVID and needing to isolate in place again.