The Road Back – Part Five: Seniors Stay Connected Despite COVID-19

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Carol Kitabayashi, executive director of Westside Pacific Villages. WPV is part of a national movement of self-governing “villages” for seniors.

This is the final article in the five-part series featuring the work of Japanese American journalists in three states — California, Hawaii, and Washington — share stories of ingenuity and resilience in the era of COVID-19. This unique collaboration was produced in partnership with The Rafu Shimpo, North American Post, and Hawaii Herald and made possible by a grant from the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.

By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

WESTCHESTER — A ride to the hair salon. A volunteer to help with an at-home project. Someone to carry groceries on a trip to the supermarket. A few of life’s simple pleasures.

For more than eight years, Carol Kitabayashi has offered services that make life more enjoyable for seniors living on the westside of Los Angeles. As executive director of the Westside Pacific Villages (WPV), she leads a team of trained volunteers and manages programs for seniors who wish to remain active and independent in the comfort of their own homes as they age.

Established around 10 years ago in Westchester, the WPV program is a grassroots organization that is part of a growing national movement of over 350 self-governing “villages” devoted to supporting senior vitality. Each affiliate of WPV is often defined by the region. Westchester, for example, has a robust transportation program but mainly the area does not currently have an adequate public transportation system.

“We’re very dependent on our cars. Most people drive from place to place. So, we found that we really wanted to support seniors who needed to get out and about, but maybe they decided not to drive anymore or maybe their kids don’t want them to drive,” explained Kitabayashi.

“We basically provide connection — to resources, to people, to other programs, events, activity groups. We even have a CAN (Call a Neighbor) program where we call the seniors once a week just to say ‘hi’ and ask if they need anything.”

But all this was before COVID. Things changed the week of March 16. “I will never forget. We had to cancel all of our in-person programs and events, trips to the YMCA…everything.”

Kitabayashi immediately marshaled her staff and volunteers. Since the seniors could no longer leave their homes, she decided to deploy volunteers to pick up and deliver food and essentials to them.

Volunteer Jay Tan and his son deliver food to seniors.

“At the time, there was also a lot of discussion about those 65 and older being the most vulnerable to the virus,” she recalls, “so we made the decision to offer our services for free.” An outpouring of support soon came from volunteers who wanted to help. The level of compassion was high and, by April, WPV had vetted and trained an additional 200 volunteers.

As the pandemic limited where people could go and with whom they could associate, the need for connectivity grew. A 2018 Eurostat study indicated 87 percent of those 75 years of age and older have never been online. Kitabayashi knew the time had come to introduce the seniors to a world that not only included computers and iPhones, but also texting, emails, social media, and Skype.

“We began doing technology training over the phone. We taught people how to do Zoom and Facetime that enabled them to connect with family and friends for the first time since the pandemic began. We helped them set up Netflix or Hulu, TV and movie streaming.”

Volunteer Darleen Fukiji visits a senior during Friday deliveries.

Drawing upon the problem-solving skills she honed while working as a human resources executive with a Global Fortune 500 company, Kitabayashi created a new program featuring special Friday deliveries, each with a different theme. These included a hot dog on the 4th of July, a trivia game and at-home fitness tips, and a Hawaiian-themed package with Kings Hawaiian rolls, macadamia nuts, and a lei. “They tell us that the best part is seeing someone come to the door. It’s the human connection that was most important.”

What’s most satisfying to Kitabayashi is the thanks WPV receives from the seniors’ family members, many of whom do not live close by and are comforted in knowing their parents and grandparents are not alone nor forgotten.

Kitabayashi isn’t stopping any time soon. She recently sent out a call for 50 new or used iPads, which she needs by Sept. 30. Apparently the seniors are entering a new technological phase.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the 405 Freeway, educator Nancy Takayama reflects on how she helped start a computer training program for seniors at the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center a few years ago. She admits it takes a bit of patience to teach seniors how to use a computer, especially if they’ve never done it before.

“You have to start slowly, but when they get it, you see their eyes light up. I love teaching seniors.”

Nancy Takayama

Computer skills, the Internet, and social media come easily to **digital natives** (those age 35 or younger who have grown up in the digital age), but older adults often find computers intimidating.

According to a study conducted by Pew Research, as many as 77 percent of older adults say that they need help when learning how to use a smartphone or tablet. In addition, many adults do not trust social media and do not use social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram and are not comfortable using Google or surfing the Internet.

Although 96 percent of seniors over age 67 own a mobile phone, less than half of those are smartphones. Still, about 83 percent of seniors between ages 64-74 say they use the Internet at least once a week.

Takayama more recently has been teaching older adults how to navigate programs such as Windows and Excel. Most of the teaching is done over the phone. “Sometimes they become frustrated and may go so far as to think they are stupid. But I have found that many older adults learn visually. I had to adapt my teaching style.”

It may be that by connecting the seniors through technology, Kitabayashi and Takayama are strengthening the seniors’ well-being.

Most technology relies on the ability to see, hear, and read, meaning due to health conditions, a significant chunk of society may be missing out on communication opportunities. Moreover, seniors sometimes find touch screens to be confusing. Takayama remains undaunted, she recently added Power Point to the list of programs she is introducing to seniors.

For fun, she has helped organize Zoom get-togethers where friends old and new from the SFVJACC can share cooking tips and other information, play games, chat, and more. Takayama may have hit upon a healthy diversion. The Global Council on Brain Health suggests that social engagement can help maintain thinking skills and slow cognitive decline. Other studies link an active social life with better cardiovascular outcomes and greater immunity to infectious disease, among other health benefits.

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Ellen Endo is a life-long journalist whose association with The Rafu Shimpo spans nearly 40 years. She has written for national publications and the ABC Television Network. She is also an active Little Tokyo community leader.

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