InterIm staff shop for groceries for CID residents. Photo by Pinky Gupta/InterIm

“Let’s keep it up everybody, we’ve got a lot of momentum, we’ve got a lot of good energy,” said Henry Liu, community organizer for InterIm Community Development Association, in a video. Wearing masks, Liu, Eliza Guan and Lizzy Baskerville of InterIm CDA, and a team of community volunteers, have been making deliveries of groceries and hot meals to seniors and families in the CID at least once a week, which Liu has been documenting in videos. “Can’t really say much about it except smile,” Liu says to the camera. 

Liu started a GoFundMe on behalf of InterIm CDA, which has raised $6,708 dollars of its $10,000 goal to help pay for groceries, supplementing the many donated supplies. Most recently, Liu and volunteers delivered groceries and fresh produce donated by Sun Food Trading Co to 800 people in the neighborhood. They previously donated Vitamin C bottles and five-pound bags of rice to 120 elderly residents at International House. The week before, they brought hot meals, groceries bags donated by ACRS (containing potatoes, cookies, chips, ramen, fruit, soda, fish and rice), and lumpia and Filipino snacks donated by Seattle U: United Filipino Club, to over 300 residents throughout the neighborhood: Nihonmachi Terrace, Eastern Hotel, Hirabayashi Place, the NP Hotel, Atlas Apartments, New Central Apartments. 

As the coronavirus pandemic forces seniors in the CID indoors for their safety, neighborhood organizations have been forced to adapt to new challenges in caring for them.

Mike Wong, Healthy Aging and Wellness Program Director at International Community Health Services (ICHS) worries that because seniors are afraid of being exposed to coronavirus, they may be less likely to seek out services. “The traditional ways of helping are no longer with us,” Wong said. “We are preparing for this to be a long-term reality, so we are trying to pivot our services to meet the new reality that we have before us.”

Talking with seniors, Liu learned that many are afraid to go out. “Many of them aren’t leaving their apartment unit, and a lot of them are not leaving their buildings.” Those with challenged mobility or a disability, who previously relied on family or friends to bring them groceries, are getting fewer visits.

“This virus had a tremendous impact on their ability to socialize and enjoy the neighborhood the way they typically do,” said Michael Itti, executive director of Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC). Seniors can no longer do Tai Chi in the park, socialize in the neighborhood and go out to restaurants and grocery stores, Itti said. “It is a concern that they are really unable to enjoy the quality of life that they enjoyed before the virus.”

Community organizations in the CID are working together to try and keep seniors safe, socially engaged, fed, and in good spirits. The Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) is also delivering food to residents in the buildings it manages and others (including food from ACRS), conducting wellness checks on residents, and sharing information with InterIm to help coordinate its deliveries, said Joseph C. Guanlao in an email. SCIDpda’s building managers are informing residents about public health recommendations, and custodial staff are regularly sanitizing common areas in buildings SCIDpda manages.

ICHS has a mobile test site for coronavirus. ACRS’s food bank is providing groceries, and CISC has a phone line for elderly people looking for assistance (and one for those under 55), with staff available who can speak Cantonese and Mandarin.

“Each organization has different expertise and resources,” said Lillian Young, communications manager for Kin On nursing home.

“We’re all working together to coordinate, to ensure that we provide services,” said Itti of CISC. “Now more than ever, working together in close collaboration is essential.”

For some organizations, helping seniors has meant doing less; closing programs, or offering them virtually. 

Keeping seniors safe from infection is a top priority, said Wong of ICHS. “Right now it’s all about prevention,” he said. ICHS has shut down its adult health and meals programs, and eliminated visitors to the assisted living facility, as well as group activities. “A lot of senior programs are based around socialization, creating places where seniors can get together and share a meal together, or do activities together,” Wong said. “Socialization is the exact opposite of what is mandated by the stay in place model.”

Kin On closed its community centers in Columbia City and Bellevue, where people could come to learn crafting or technology skills or dance. Staff of these programs transitioned to offering some of these things virtually, including a virtual teatime via Zoom, as well as a program teaching residents to use Zoom. Staff offer livestream workshops on YouTube. Some who work in the medical profession share their perspective.

CISC’s building is temporarily closed as staff work from home, but its team of bilingual staff, who speak Mandarin and Cantonese, are making regular calls to ensure their senior clients have access to food, prescription drugs and other essentials, connecting them to other organizations that can help, and educating about how to keep themselves safe from COVID-19, Itti said.

As the City, State and County creates new policies and programs addressing coronavirus, CISC has been translating information and sending it to seniors and community members via We Chat and over the phone. 

Liu of InterIm began delivering groceries to seniors in March, starting with 13 grocery bags he delivered himself. The next week, Liu and other InterIm staffers did a grocery run for seniors, buying long-lasting foods (crackers, frozen buns, sweet potatoes, bok choy and instant ramen) from Uwajimaya for 40 seniors at International House, International Terrace and Imperial House, along with an informational flyer in Chinese about COVID-19.

Liu has been carefully planning the food runs, debriefing with the team and figuring out how to be more efficient and safe each time, and best communicate with residents and building management. 

The plan is to continue with the deliveries regularly, and to build relationships with seniors so they can help them with groceries going forward, Liu said.

Figuring out how to address the social isolation seniors are experiencing is “one of the most pressing questions that we have before us right now,” said Wong of ICHS, especially because seniors are the least likely of anyone to understand how to use the technologies allowing virtual communication.

“Social isolation is the reason why we have these programs in the first place, and it’s the first challenge that we need to address as we are trying to adapt our programming to this new reality,” Wong said.

The challenge, said Liu, is to “figure out a way for them to feel like they’re not alone and help them pass time faster.”

Talking with them on the phone about what they’re experiencing, and letting them know people are there to help, is a start, Liu said. “That does make them feel better, it makes them feel like some people actually care and it shows that there’s a lot of community supporters who want to connect to them.” Liu is making an exercise video seniors can watch to substitute for the exercise classes they used to take, and plans to edit together an encouraging video where community members share their support.

Kin On had to restrict visits from family members, but staff are aware that, for some residents, maintaining connections to family members is essential for their quality of life — so they’re finding workarounds, said Young.  

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