Keeping an elder loved one connected to culture

These are tough times to find a place for a loved one who needs to be in assisted living or a nursing facility. Even along the West Coast, where most of the Japanese American population is clustered, residential facilities that specialized in Japanese seniors have closed or sold to new owners, and have switched to focusing on providing services.

If it’s difficult on the coast, it’s near impossible if there aren’t many Japanese Americans. There are residential centers for Japanese and Japanese Americans in cities in California, and in Chicago the Heiwa Terrace apartment was opened 40 years ago for older Japanese, mostly Issei. These days, there’s a mix of a few Nisei, and more Sansei who are bilingual and don’t rely solely on Japanese culture, along with Chinese and Korean residents. Alice Murata, who has been a board member since Heiwa was built by the Japanese American Service Committee, notes that even in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that are primarily Caucasian, there are often groups of Japanese American residents. Not so much in Denver.

The generational difference is also important, Murata, who is a Sansei, notes. Nisei and Sansei don’t need purely Japanese culture like their forebears. “They don’t need as many cultural things anymore because they can go to movies together or they could go play golf.” Issei, she points out, have different activities. “They like to make little crafts, and they like, you know, singing and dancing and all these things that tend to be much more Japanese focused.”

Murata says in Chicago, many younger Japanese Americans live in the suburbs and don’t want to drive to the city, so they place their elders in facilities near them. She says another big difference is that the older Issei never drove, but Nisei and Sansei who are now old enough to be in these residences often drive, and are simply more mobile and can find their culture on their own.

I live in a suburb of Denver. When dementia made it no longer feasible for my mom to live at home, my brother and I visited several facilities nearby.

They ranged from one that was like a giant luxury hotel to a small, family-owned memory care center.

We chose the family-owned Landmark Memory Care center, which has only 18 residents. There’s been some turnover in both staff and residents, but there’s a familial feeling, in large part because Landmark was founded by Deborah and Peter Hanson, and the leadership team consists of their family members, who all have experience in health and nursing.

There’s one challenge with Landmark: My mom is the only Japanese living there. It’s an issue we would have faced anywhere in the Denver area.

There are no facilities in the area dedicated to Asian Americans in particular, except for a church-run home dedicated to serving Korean seniors.

This may not be a problem in other parts of the U.S. with dense Asian and Asian American populations. Assisted living facilities are probably much more likely to have other Japanese, or at least Asian Americans. In Denver, however, although the numbers will change after this year’s count, according to the 2010 Census, there were under 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry — that’s 0.35 percent of the total population.

So, our family accepted the fact that we would be the primary providers of Japanese culture for my mom. Since this spring and the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, that’s been more difficult to do.

Before the quarantine, we used to be able to visit my mom and spend some time in her room, where I could stumble through my lousy Nihongo in conversations. The older she’s gotten and the more advanced her dementia, the more she’s reverted to speaking in mostly if not all Japanese.

Prior to March, we could take her out for a meal at area Japanese restaurants once in a while. Since the lockdown, we’ve been able to drop off takeout food at the front gate. We’ve been doing the same with her much-loved Japanese snacks like osenbei (Japanese rice crackers), manju (Japanese confection), dorayaki (Japanese pancake with azuki filling) and monaka (a Japanese sweet with azuki bean jam in between light wafers).

In an ideal world, we could sit in her room where I would plug my laptop into her television and I’d stream Japanese programs on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Her favorites were a comedy about a hapless TV news reporter in Sapporo (she’s from Hokkaido and her brother lives in Sapporo, so she recognizes the city) and “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories.”

We would also pore over photos of her last trip to Japan four years ago, and have her read the notes we made her write about when each Polaroid photo was taken and placed in an album, where it was and who was in it.

And, we bought a pair of helpful Hiragana and Katakana puzzles with cute drawings to go with each character that we ask my mom to put together. It doesn’t matter that she’s done it dozens of times, because she doesn’t remember, and each time is the first.

Junko Asakawa, who lives in a family-owned memory care center, does a Hiragana puzzle.
photo courtesy of Gil Asakawa

Even without any tools or toys to help us, we can get her to teach us Nihongo (“How do you count things?” “How about people?”), or get her to reminisce about her hometown of Nemuro and of course, Japanese food. She merely shrugs when I mention all the wonderful food she used to cook, but she’ll give a fond soliloquy about the quality of salmon, konbu (kelp) and the Hanasaki crab her hometown is famous for.

My wife and I brought a friend one time who helped her write all the residents and staff members’ names in Japanese on cards they could wear as badges. Her brain and muscle memory still remembers how to write some Kanji and the Kana alphabets.

All these activities connect with something deep in her brain that she can still call up — language, the senses of taste and smell, triggered by memories of food.

Of course, at the memory care center, although she’s well treated and the staff is wonderful, she doesn’t get authentic Japanese food at all anymore unless we deliver it.

CONNECTING — Gil Asakawa visits his mother, Junko, who lives in a family-owned memory care center. photo courtesy of Gil Asakawa

But the staff has been extra-helpful in trying to make her feel at home during the quarantine. If she’s the only one in the great room at the entrance to the facility, they’ll turn on the cable TV to Netflix and play a Japanese show. They’re very respectful in serving her only her favorite roasted green tea, and only in her teapot and the cups she likes. The little details keep her grounded.

When they have trouble communicating, they use Google Translate, which admittedly is not the most accurate translation device, but handy because it’s on everyone’s phones. When they realized my mom doesn’t understand the robotic voice that comes out of the phone, they started printing out messages for her, which she sometimes laughs at because they don’t make sense. But at least she can read them.

Landmark Memory Care’s most recent resident is a Persian man whose main language is Farsi, and the staff uses Google Translate for him too.

“Being a smaller community of 18 residents, we get to know them on a more intimate level,” explained Keleigh Hanson, Landmark’s assistant administrator. “We feel comfortable bringing really unique culture, including your mom’s. I would say it’s very important (to keep residents connected to their culture). We never want anyone to lose that part of themselves.”

She added: “Dementia is like a storybook where they go to the end, and then they start coming back towards the beginning, and their culture is the main thing that they hold on to.”

And food is an important handle for that culture. When I recently dropped off a takeout order of her favorite dish, chirashi sushi with a side of miso soup, Hanson saw her enjoying it for lunch. “I said ‘Junko, you have sushi!’

She just looked up and smiled real big, shook her head and kept eating.”

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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