“Well hello there!” Charlie greeted his new neighbours with a smile. They were busy working with a moving crew who were carrying the last few items into the suite. The gentleman gave an awkward smile back, but didn’t say much more. Inside, the man’s wife was doing her best to direct where everything was to go, struggling with the little English she knew. She was growing more and more frustrated and the workers were growing more and more confused. “My name’s Charlie. We live just down the hall.” Charlie motioned towards his door. The man stared at him blankly. “It will be some work to get things set up over the next few weeks…I did it with our kids while my wife was in the hospital…but once things settle down, you’ll really enjoy it here,” Charlie offered. The man gave a polite nod, which at the same time suggested he had not understood a word Charlie just said. Later that evening, Charlie and Hazel noticed the new couple had made it down for dinner. They were sitting at a table looking unsure of what to do. The server had come by twice with plates, and they had shaken their heads and put their hands up to signal refusal. The one staff member had tried to explain that they really only had two entrée choices, and that if neither was acceptable, there wasn’t much more they could really do. The couple continued to sit at the table drinking water and eating their salad. Ruby and a few of the other ladies sitting nearby began whispering in hushed tones. Hazel shot them a quick look and shook her head to show her disapproval.
After dinner, the new residents made their way back to the main lobby and waited for the elevators. A few of the other community members tried to make conversation, but the couple continued to nod politely without saying much. “That is Sunita and Aarav, they are from India,” Millie whispered from behind Charlie and Hazel. Charlie turned to face her. “How did you learn that? Do you speak Hindi?” Millie laughed, “Nope. Never learned that one in grammar school. The site manager had toured them around earlier this morning and we were introduced. Unfortunately, that’s about all I know. I’d love to get to know them better, but…you know…that darn grammar school.” Charlie gave an understanding chuckle. “It is a shame. I wonder if anyone else here is more worldly than us monolinguists?,” Hazel thought aloud. “You and your five dollar words Hazel!” Millie laughed. “I thought of that, but I’m certain Sunita and Aarav are our only Hindi-speaking residents. It’s hard enough moving into a place like this, not knowing anyone, and then you have language barriers on top of it.” “Cultural ones too,” Hazel added. All of a sudden, Charlie got really excited. “I have an idea,” he exclaimed.
The next morning, Charlie took a walk to the grocery store. Charlie, being the chatty person he was, had made friends with most of the people at the store. “What will it be today Charlie?,” the lady asked from behind the bakery counter. “Um…well…I’m not sure Barsha. I need to ask for a favour.” Barsha looked a little puzzled. She was not used to changes in Charlie’s routine. “We have this new couple who moved into the Manor. I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but I seem to recall you mentioning you had grown up in India, yes?” Barsha laughed, “You remember everything don’t you?” Charlie blushed a bit. “Yes, habit from years of teaching. I was wondering if you might be able to help me pick out a few things for a new couple that moved in the other day. I noticed last night they didn’t eat much more than the salad that was served. They are new to Canada and don’t speak a lot of English. I want to take over some things that they might like…make them feel more ‘at home.’ And maybe you could even teach me how to say hello, good morning…stuff like that.” Barsha smiled with the biggest grin Charlie had ever seen. “Oh, that is extremely sweet of you Charlie. I think I have some ideas on how to help,” she said with a wink. “I just have to make a quick phone call to my aunt. She owns a restaurant on the south side and I think she might be a good person to help us with your plan! My shift ends at 4pm, and I could meet you a little after that. I’ll bring my aunt by as well.” Charlie was excited. “That sounds great Barsha!”
Charlie, Barsha and her aunt made their way to Sunita and Aarav’s suite with a basket of goodies in hand. Her aunt had prepared some traditional Indian dishes, which Charlie had been happy to compensate her for. Charlie had added a few “staples” from the grocery store that Barsha had suggested. There was an art to picking the right spices, and Charlie was surprised to learn how many things he had never even heard of before were absolute necessities in Indian cuisine. Charlie carefully knocked on the door. “Namaste!” Charlie said awkwardly. Aarav looked a little confused at first, but upon seeing the two women behind Charlie, he gave a smile and invited them inside.
There was a lot of friendly conversation between the couple, Barsha and her aunt. Charlie could not follow a word of what was being said, but was happy to see everything going well. The older couple were a little reluctant to accept the food at first, but it was explained that it was a gesture of welcome. Barsha told them that she worked at the grocery store just down the street and was more than happy to help them, as was her aunt. She also gave them information on the local cultural society, and invited them to an event the following week. Sunita and Aarav responded very graciously. Barsha also let them know that Charlie and Hazel were just down the hall, and despite only speaking English, were more than happy to join them at meal times and for activities so that they could get to know other residents.
Charlie was so pleased that he was able to help Sunita and Aarav feel more at home. Living in a new place wasn’t easy, and he could only imagine what it would be like to start a new life, in a new country, as a senior.
Moving into seniors living can be quite the adjustment, but it is even more difficult for newcomers to Canada who not only have to adjust to a new building, but different systems and cultural experiences than what they are used to. Ensuring that ALL seniors living in congregate housing feel included, respected and supported, regardless of any perceived barriers, is so important in the work of housing providers. At the same time, it is also very difficult.
Do you have any stories or experiences like the one shared above? How can we ensure seniors communities are welcoming and inclusive of everyone? We’d love to hear your ideas.