Exercise classes connect immigrant seniors and youth in heart of Vancouver's Chinatown

·3 min read
The 40-minute fitness classes are offered twice a week by the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The 40-minute fitness classes are offered twice a week by the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The stores and offices on the second floor of the Sun Wah Centre don't open for another two hours, but over 40 seniors are in every nook and hallway, stretching and moving through exercises together.

They lined up before 9 a.m. to be let into the centre in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown, and before the class begins, each senior — most in their 80s and 90s — takes a chair from the rack and places it on the floor.

The soft music and Mandarin instructions start soon after, and the seniors begin exercising in unison, accompanied by three youth workers from the Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice.

The exercise program is offered twice a week and is one of many programs the society holds to connect youth and low-income immigrant seniors in Chinatown and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The society was set up to help seniors — many of whom don't speak English as a first language — connect with youth who can help them with issues ranging from dealing with evictions to finding culturally appropriate food.

The society also has staff and volunteers accompany seniors on medical visits, weekly phone check-ins and other events.

But there are benefits for the youth, as well, says operations manager Beverly Ho.

"They [the seniors] have a lot of life experience that you can't learn about online or through books," she said.

"They know a lot about the local area, too, and the changes that have come and gone. The elders here are the heritage and the living history."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Connecting neighbours

Ho said the program also helps preserve the neighbourhood's living history.

"I think a lot of times the governments and other organizations are concerned with architecture and facades in the neighbourhood, which are important as well, but we definitely learn the most from the seniors," she said.

"That's why we think it's important that they age in place, they have the dignified affordable housing they need, the groceries and community support they need as well."

The morning exercise program is an informal way for people living in the neighbourhood to connect, and provides a good chance to socialize.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"It's good to keep me moving," Lily Con, 92, said of the program. "It keeps me healthy, and happy to see all those people."

Spry, lively and dressed impeccably, Lily said she was new to the class but looked forward to meeting new people.

Chinese Seniors Hub Coordinator Sean Cao said the program had just 10 seniors less than a year ago and has grown to over 40.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The seniors exercise for 40 minutes, and then have some time to socialize and enjoy a bun from one of the local bakeries.

One of the seniors, Rosa Chan, attends regularly, and said she lives alone, so she invited her upstairs neighbour, Yurong Li, to attend as well.

"Most of the seniors have lived here for over a decade, some for several decades, others are newer to the neighbourhood, but have always been connected to, or frequent, Chinatown," said Ho.

"They've lived through and created history. A lot of them are preserving folk traditions, certain local languages and dialects that are dying out. There's a lot we can learn in language, culture, and certain Lunar New Year traditions."

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