NEW GENERATION, NEW NEEDS: Senior organizations on serving Sansei

When young Sansei came together to form senior service organizations in the 1970s, the organizations primarily served the elderly Issei, Japanese immigrants who otherwise did not have access to culturally sensitive services. Today, many Sansei are now coming of age to qualify for the services they set up, but their reliance on these services differ from that of their parents and grandparents.

Sansei as Seniors
“I feel like the Sansei generation are really savvy, and they know they have a lot of different options,” Diane Wong, executive director of J-Sei in Emeryville, Calif., said. Wong added that having culturally sensitive services alone does not attract Sansei to her organization. “I feel like we have to have the quality. The service has to be great. Responsive … they definitely could go somewhere else for a lot of the things we offer.”

Linda Revilla, program director at ACC Senior Services, said her organization serves seniors in the predominantly Asian Pocket-Greenhaven neighborhood of Sacramento, Calif.

Ron Tanaka, a Sansei volunteer, with ACC Senior Services Volunteer Manager Kim Fujiwara, a Yonsei. photo by Linda Revilla

“A lot of people in their 60s, they might be newly retired, but they don’t really see themselves as a senior either. Their parents are seniors,” Revilla said.

Although many Sansei qualify for the services these organizations provide, their involvement with Nikkei senior service organizations are often relegated to seeking assistance for caring for even older parents, doing volunteer work or taking classes and activities.

“In terms of Sansei using services, it is more for family than actually being a recipient themselves,” Steve Ishii, executive director of Kimochi Inc. in San Francisco, said. The organization, along with many of its counterpart organizations throughout Northern California, provide caregiver support for families with elderly parents and grandparents.

“It’s really dependent upon the programming,” Jennifer Masuda, executive director of Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Service in San Jose’s Japantown, said. “Are (Sansei) using our services? They are. The focus obviously slightly differs between the generations.”

MULTIGENERATIONAL SERVICE ­— Many Sansei volunteer at senior organizations after retirement, including helping at nutrition programs like Yu-Ai Kai’s in San Jose, Calif. courtesy of Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Masuda said Sansei primarily relied on her organization’s classes and events based out of the Akiyama Wellness Center, whereas Nisei were more likely to attend programs at the organization’s main building for communal lunches and senior day care before the programs had to shut down due to COVID-19.

Active Seniors
Masuda, who previously ran Yu-Ai Kai’s Akiyama Wellness Center before becoming the head of Yu-Ai Kai last year, said the center serves a more mixed demographic of participants, both in age and ethnicity.

“We’re very fortunate, many of the Sansei actually are volunteers at the center, but then, they also use the center for their exercises, for cultural art classes, or even arts and crafts,” Masuda said. “For them, it’s like their sense of community.”

Although fewer Sansei participate in Kimochi’s services, Ishii said they are interested in activities advertised in Club Nikkei, a monthly social calendar for seniors that provides several weekly activities. Although the calendar is on hold due to the pandemic, Ishii said participation in the program has been growing.

“Since a lot of the Sansei are starting to retire, they have taken advantage of some of the activities, like our Reno trip, our theater trips and dinners,” he said.

Similarly, Jean Shiomoto, board chair of ACC, said her organization provides her with a way to stay active in retirement, as well as a new family — in addition to her relatives and former colleagues.

“I think that’s what a lot of people like, the interaction,” Shiomoto said. “I go over to ACC for meetings and then I take a flower arranging class, ikebana. And I see a lot of people that I know through other connections that are taking classes, … It’s a community where you reconnect with people and then you make new friendships.”

Revilla noted that Sansei and other younger seniors typically participate in more active classes. Before closing for the pandemic, Revilla said younger seniors enjoyed taking yoga classes and Zumba, in addition to other classes offered at the senior center.

While Sansei may not partake in congregate meal programs or other services themselves, programs and classes that are popular among younger seniors also helps introduce the organization’s breadth of services to their extended families. Wong said the educational programs her organization presents introduces people to their services.

“Eventually if you have that relationship, they’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe my parents could use the meals,’ and so it kind of has this snowball effect,” Wong said.

Culturally Relevant Meals
Nikkei senior service organizations are also known for culturally relevant meal programs. Although dine-in congregate meals are currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, J-Sei, Kimochi and Yu-Ai Kai have provided meals for seniors cooked at their senior centers.

In Sacramento, Meals on Wheels by ACC, a sister organization to ACC Senior Services, delivered lunches to seniors at two Japanese American churches. The three San Francisco Bay Area organizations prepare food in-house for seniors and offer meal delivery to seniors within their designated areas.

Kimochi, in San Francisco and San Mateo, Calif., delivers meals within San Francisco, as well as to a number of seniors in the San Mateo County area. Yu-Ai Kai covers San Jose’s Japantown, as well as the Berryessa neighborhood to the north of the ethnic enclave. J-Sei serves meals in the East Bay from El Sobrante, Calif. down to Oakland.

Wong said more seniors have signed up for home-delivery of meals in light of the shelter-in-place orders. However, there are challenges in getting meals to the locations that are further out. She said her organization set up a pilot program to deliver meals to the Eden Japanese American Community Center in San Leandro twice a month, and hopes to establish similar programs at other Japanese American churches, such as Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda or the Japanese Christian Church in Walnut Creek.

“That really could help us get meals to new areas. So that’s what we’re trying to play with, our kind of partnering with the different community orgs to expand our reach,” she said.

Serving Good Food
Although Sansei themselves do not necessarily seek out the meals program, organization heads said offering quality meals sets them apart from other programs.

“We provide a six-month menu cycle, and we’re always looking and asking for what are the likes, what are the dislikes,” Ishii said. Although Kimochi focuses on serving Japanese meals, Ishii said the organization may eventually change their menu to reflect the palates of the younger seniors who eat the meals.

Although Ishii has yet to see an influx of Sansei at his program, he thinks new Asian-fusion dishes could help attract them in the future. “When we started out, we had chicken teriyaki … It was probably one of the more popular (dishes), now it’s average. I think new, different types of dishes will catch the attention (of diners).”

Masuda also spoke of Yu-Ai Kai’s lunch program’s strength in preparing meals on-site, rather than serving flash-frozen meals as many other Meals on Wheels affiliates do for their programs.

“There are some senior centers that will have a lunch that’s maybe a sandwich and a piece of fruit that’s already pre-packaged, versus actually getting like an unagi donburi,” Masuda said. “Unagi is actually a very popular item. Like unagi, tonkatsu, saba. They’re very popular.”

Although Meals on Wheels by ACC serves the greater Sacramento area, the organization also served an Asian-style lunch once a week to the Riverside Tanoshimi Kai at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento and the South Tanoshimi Kai at the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church. ACC’s Meals on Wheels service delivered meals prepared by a local restaurant before congregate meal programs were suspended.

Helen Sakaishi, a board member with the Riverside Tanoshimi Kai, said most seniors primarily came to the weekly lunches to socialize rather than eat. She did, however, say the flash-frozen meals originally provided by ACC likely served as a detriment to the program’s popularity.

“We were losing people because of the food, but it has gotten better now,” she said. Sakaishi said around 100 diners used to come each week, but the numbers dwindled to 60 recently as Nisei have passed on.

Amiko Kashiwagi, a longtime Nisei volunteer at the South Tanoshimi Kai program, echoed Sakaishi’s sentiments. She said Sansei are much more active and prefer other activities. She added that some seniors may feel uncomfortable attending an event where they do not know anyone.

“Once they start coming in, they enjoy it, but at the very beginning, they feel they may not know anybody and you know how it is when you don’t really want to go when you really don’t know anybody,” Kashiwagi said.

While Sansei are not partaking in the meals, organizers do note it is worth a try.

“Well, once they try it, they will come,” Kashiwagi said. “But they need to come and try it first.”

For more information on ACC Senior Services, call (916) 394-6399 or visit www.accsv.org. For more information on J-Sei’s services, call (510) 654-4000 or visit https://j-sei.org. For more information on Kimochi, Inc., call (415) 931-2294 or visit www.kimochi-inc.org. For more information on Yu-Ai Kai call (408) 294-2505 or visit https://yuaikai.org. For more information about the Riverside Tanoshimi Kai, call Helen Sakaishi (916) 600-9291. For more information about the South Tanoshimi Kai, contact the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church at (916) 421-1017.

Genki Aging is a series of articles and videos on aging in the Japanese American community. It was funded by a generous grant from the JA Community Foundation.

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