Canada's immigrant population is getting older. How should retirement homes adapt?

"Our population is not only aging but is becoming more diverse ethnically and linguistically. Resources should be more equitably allocated to improve access to long-term care homes that meet the needs of immigrant seniors."

​"It's my second home, my home away from home."

From the outside, Scarborough, Ont.'s Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care seems like your average seniors' home, but look closer and you'll see a different story. Yee Hong's four facilities aim to provide quality care catering specifically to seniors from the Chinese community.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Joseph Wong and 30 other Chinese-Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area banded together and built the Yee Hong Centre after witnessing the challenges — difficulty communicating with staff and lack of emotional support — Chinese seniors faced in mainstream facilities. They hoped to create a place that would treat their parents and grandparents with "respect and dignity." 

Wellesley Institute researcher Seong-gee Um believes that facilities like Yee Hong and Guru Nanak Niwas Independent Living and Assisted Living Facility in Surrey, B.C., which provides care to aging Sikhs, will be essential in the future. 

In an equitable care system, everyone has access to long-term care regardless of which language they speak, where they come from, what they have, and where they live- Wellesly  Institute researcher  Seong-gee  Um

"Our population is not only aging but is becoming more diverse ethnically and linguistically. Resources should be more equitably allocated to improve access to long-term care homes that meet the needs of immigrant seniors." 

According to her 2016 study Ensuring Healthy Aging for All, "Immigrants as a whole were more than twice as likely as non-immigrants to report unmet needs for home care services." 

The study also stated that "seniors whose mother tongue was not English were more likely than those whose mother tongue was English to report unmet needs." 

Language difficulties and limited access to familiar foods and activity can lead to social isolation, depression and decreased physical health. 

Our children have followed this culture and we are very grateful for their love and respect.- Sue  Sumi  Kai

As Canada's elderly population grows  — one out of every six people in Canada over age 64 —  immigrant communities will be in need of long-term care facilities that can handle these specific cultural needs.

In Toronto, there are long waitlists to live in culturally specific centres, which points to an unmet need for these facilities. Right now, Yee Hong has 4,000 seniors on its list, and the average wait time is six to eight years.

Sue Sumi Kai, 92, doesn't have to wait. She's been lucky enough to live in Yee Hong's Scarborough centre since June, 2005 "The Yee Hong Centre where I live is No. 1. I feel comfortable here," Kai says.

Sue Sumi Kai and her sons, David (left) and Brain (right).

Kai grew up in Vancouver until the Second World War when, at 17-years-old, she along with other Japanese-Canadians were forced out of their homes. For three years, Kai lived in an internment camp before getting married in 1948. She went on to build a 25-year career in management, raise two sons and become a grandmother of five. 

"The Chinese culture is similar to the Japanese [culture] in many ways," says Kai. "We have been taught by our parents to respect the elders. Our children have followed this culture and we are very grateful for their love and respect."

A typical day for Kai involves enjoying the company of the other residents and taking part in various physical and creative activities.

Sue Sumi Kai and her family, celebrating Easter in 2008.

"There are various programs after lunch — cooking, flower arranging, tai chi, bingo, arts and crafts, even black jack. One of my favourite activities is singing." 

Before living at Yee Hong, Kai spent time at a more mainstream long-term care facility in Whitby, Ont. And although she refers to it as "high class, well-kept and clean," something didn't feel right. 

"Everyone was dressed beautifully. There were no Asian or black people. I was the only Japanese [person], sometimes I felt uncomfortable."

Kai has no plans on leaving the Yee Hong Centre anytime soon. 

​"It's my second home, my home away from home."

The health of Canada's aging population may rely on changing the way we approach the care system.

"In an equitable care system, everyone has access to long-term care regardless of which language they speak, where they come from, what they have, and where they live," says Um.

"Our system should better respond to the growing needs of such care."