A senior citizen’s letter to the future

With a racial and age demographic shift on the horizon, Stanford University launched a mini-fellowship to educate the general public on how they can serve ethnic minority seniors. Through it, gerontologist Laurie Ulrick developed a project for Japanese American seniors to pass on their life experiences and cultural values, but she found that working with this group was more difficult than she anticipated.

Ulrick typically helps older adults with housing issues, and offers workshops to help them tell their own life stories. While she is not of Japanese descent and wasn’t looking to work with a specific ethnic group, Ulrick developed a workbook to help Japanese American seniors write a legacy letter for future generations through Stanford’s Internet-based In-reach for Successful Aging through Education Program (i-SAGE).

“It’s called ‘Letters to the Future,’” she said. “By the end of doing this they will have produced a letter to their family or friends, or even to the community at large about their values and ideas about life.” The ethical will, or a legacy letter, is a letter written by elders in a family or community to chronicle and pass on their personal beliefs to the next generation. While her project focused on Japanese Americans, Ulrick said she participated in the program to learn how to better help elders of all ethnicities and offer more culturally sensitive services.

The aging population is becoming a major issue for Americans, said VJ Periyakoil, director of the i-SAGE program. “The term some people use is the ‘silver tsunami.’ And actually, it’s more of a silver brown tsunami because the number of ethnic elders is increasing in leaps and bounds,” she said. Stanford has been trying to promote successful aging for multicultural older adults by training doctors and clinicians, but found it was not enough, Periyakoil said. Thus, the university began offering a free mini-fellowship to educate the general public on caring for ethnic older adults, Periyakoil said.

“We have over 150 graduates in our program in less than 20 months,” she said. The i-SAGE mini-fellowship considers new fellows each month and is mostly conducted online, in addition to the community project.

Ulrick said she chose to work with Japanese Americans because of past experience. She was hired to compile the life story of an elderly Japanese American woman during the final five months of her life. “After that experience, I felt even more interested in the culture,” she said. “But working with a group is … radically different.”

Ulrick worked with the J-Sei (formerly known as the Japanese American Services of the East Bay) Senior Center, based out of the Berkeley Methodist United Church in Berkeley, Calif. to present her project during its lunch program in the summer of 2013.

Considering the time she had to work with the seniors, Ulrick chose to do an ethical will. Initially, she gave a presentation to the seniors during their lunch at the center, but she was met with silence. “I modified my approach each time, becoming more and more indirect, until I sat at the table behind everyone else and just waited for people to come to me. And that approach worked,” she wrote in a report she presented to Periyakoil. With few seniors participating during lunch, however, Ulrick instead created a workbook to help J-Sei’s seniors write letters on their own.

“I know how healing that can be. So when she talked about a culturally tailored intervention with a legacy letter for older adults to write to the younger generations, it’s very congruent with previous work we’ve done with our patients,” said Periyakoil, who mentored Ulrick. “We know how much the family values those letters.”

“I thought it was a good idea,” said Vickie Kawakami, site coordinator of the senior center. “I knew it was going to be difficult, because they don’t consider themselves writers, and as in Japanese community, they don’t talk about personal things.” Kawakami noted that the seniors have consistently declined to share writing done in the center’s writing class.

Kawakami said one senior participated in Ulrick’s program and wrote a letter to her daughter. While Etsu Date did not consider herself a writer, she wrote a thank-you letter to her daughter and son-in-law, who took her into their home after she suffered a fall. “I know it intrudes into their privacy, but I was all alone and my back was fractured,” said the 93-year-old Date. She plans to give the letter to her daughter once she is gone. “It’s just to thank her for her sacrifice.”

Ulrick said other seniors had previously written similar letters, but her work with this group did not produce any other letters, Kawakami said.

The experience, however, taught Ulrick some valuable lessons. She realized that such letters are far more effective when it is a multi-generational endeavor. “I realized at the end of it, the best people to bring it to are the family,” she said. “It would be much more effective, relieve isolation and pass down stories.” She recalled the family she worked for also explored their own Japanese American roots through their grandmother’s life story.

Kawakami agreed, saying the seniors in the center’s writing class, while reluctant to share in public, seem to share their work with their families. While Ulrick’s project was not a complete success, she said she has since applied the workbook’s materials in her private practice, Narrative Time, and continues to work in the Bay Area.

While Periyakoil said her mini fellowship enables its graduates to advance in their professions, she said she has had gratifying cases where the work born out of the program continued after the fellowship’s three-month timeline. The fellowship is free and Periyakoil encourages more people to apply. For more information, visit https://aging.stanford.edu/isage-mini-fellowship-overview.

Tomo Hirai wrote this article supported by a New America Media fellowship in collaboration with the Stanford In-reach for Successful Aging through Education Program.

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