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

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

She’s ready to enjoy a day of prayer, exercise, balloon badminton and catching up with her peers.

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

Johal has dementia and is among 11 seniors who are part of the South Asian day program for older adults. The new program in Abbotsford allows South Asian seniors to interact with Punjabi-speaking staff. Seniors participate in therapeutic recreational activities and get support with monitoring health conditions, says Gurvina Mund, a nurse with 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 population in BC and help seniors feel more comfortable, independent and mentally sharp as they emerge from pandemic isolation.

BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie describes the number of culturally specific day programs as, “very, very, few.”

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

Punjabi-speaking staff lead activities to help seniors feel comfortable and stay engaged. (CBC News)

There are around 125 adult day programs in BC Of those, three in the Lower Mainland are culturally specific, alongside programs in Vancouver serving Jewish seniors and in Chilliwack serving Indigenous elders, according to the BC Ministry of Health

Overcoming language barriers

Language barriers can make it challenging for immigrant seniors to connect and feel comfortable in programs that are not culturally specific, says Mund.

“The benefit is they get to speak their language. We try to integrate how they grew up, so we relate it to them,”

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

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

“I think the biggest benefit was definitely just socialization with them. I think that’s helped immensely with their mental health.”

For seniors, like Johal, with dementia, past research has shown that attending adult day programs can help reduce stress, and reduce sleeping problems and home behavioral issues, such as agitation, according to Jennifer Baumbusch, an associate professor of nursing at the University of BC who is researching day programs.

“There are huge health benefits.”

Greater need for culturally sensitive programs

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

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

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

Meanwhile, the SUCCESS day program in Richmond which caters to Mandarin and Cantonese speaking seniors, among others, says demand is high but language barriers prevent more seniors from engaging in day programs across the province.

“It is important to reach out to those under-served communities to ensure they understand what’s available for them,” said Queenie Choo, CEO of SUCCESS

The Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS) Society in Surrey says it had to double its capacity for the day program from 10 to 20 spots. (Baneet Braich / CBC News)

According to a report from the BC seniors advocate, in 2017, there were 1,245 seniors waiting for day programs, while in 2019, there were 1,503. It’s not clear how many of these were for culturally specific day programs.

The Ministry of Health says, in 2019-2020 before the pandemic, funding was increased, raising the available adult day programs by approximately 20 per cent from 2016-17. It says day programs were temporarily closed during the pandemic but are picking back up.

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

Cheema says the solution for more day programs is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

She says its important to have, “language that they can understand, activities that they did growing up,” as well as intercultural aspects so seniors also learn about other cultures.

Cheema says culturally specific day programs provide seniors with independence from the household and prevent caregiver burnout.

Independence improves mental health

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

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

With Mangat working and her children at school, her mother was often left at home alone.

“Now, with her knees being weak, movement being difficult, she is home all day, sometimes she’s alone in the house and I feel guilty she’s sitting by herself.”

She says there is relief in seeing her mother, who has dementia, come home with crafts and stories of her day.

“It was kind of like, my kids used to do that when they went to daycare. And now my mom is doing that. So it’s just very cute.”

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