You could have heard a pin drop.
All conversation stopped as heads turned toward a small glass-walled meeting room where a petite senior citizen was staging a solo performance of traditional Chinese song. Fuqin Xu sang with the clear, strong voice of a woman half her age.
Fuqin is one of the Downtown Eastside’s many seniors – in fact, the neighborhood has almost double the number of senior residents as the rest of the city. They represent a significant influence on the life of any community but unfortunately, seniors can often be overlooked because of assumptions about interests and stereotypes about failing abilities.
That’s why the Learning Exchange invited Fuqin and other local seniors to participate in the Seniors’ Activities Fair.
During Reading Week break, 9 UBC student volunteers along with Learning Exchange senior patrons co-hosted the Fair, which attracted about 70 participants. Seniors were eager to try new activities and talk about how to stay engaged and connected in the community.
“We are committed to seniors having a leadership role in shaping what we do here,” says Kathleen Leahy, Learning Exchange’s Director.
The all-day free drop-in Fair featured “sampler” activities packed into the Learning Exchange’s first and second floors. Board games, calligraphy, nutrition, yoga, beading and other activities gave seniors a sampling of possible programming and encouraged them to talk about their healthy living challenges and solutions. Both students – whose studies range from Engineering to History – and patrons helped with translating so that everyone was heard.
The Fair’s final day was dedicated to feedback, reflection and ideas.
Fuqin offered to teach singing and shared her experiences in organizing seniors’ ballroom dance lessons in the Olympic Village neighborhood.
Lisa, a retired kindergarten teacher, is delighted to have time to teach Mandarin lessons at Carnegie Centre. At the top of her wish list of things she’d like to learn is laughing yoga – an exercise that combines laughter, movement and deep breathing. A long-time DTES resident, Lisa is self-conscious about her English skills but says she was so busy working and raising a family that she had no opportunity for language lessons. She is now eager to make up for lost time.
John, a First Nations man from northern BC, would like to teach his own Aboriginal language as well as learn Cantonese or Mandarin. A DTES resident for the past four years, he is currently taking French at the Learning Exchange and would like to teach traditional carving to other patrons.
Additional ideas were captured on coloured notes pinned to the wall – everything from learning kung fu and Chinese opera to teaching investors how to trade on foreign currency markets. Seniors want to share their skills in healthy cooking, gardening and Indian cuisine. They want to go on field trips, have music exchanges and learn classical Chinese dancing. They want more movement and less sitting. Their ideas defy the stereotypes – they are motivated to create their own wellness.
“There is enormous potential here,” says Leahy. “We are honoured to have a role in fulfilling it.”