If the purpose of social day programs is to build a supportive, engaged community, then the Elder Group at the Immigration Assistance Center has the recipe down perfectly.
A group of between 25 and 40 older Portuguese adults, mostly female retired textile workers who don’t speak English and many of whom are widowed, meet twice a week at the IAC, sharing friendship, talents, games and food together.
The group plays cards, knits, and exercises together. They also help organize shared field trips, group speakers, and are working to create a market for them to sell the textiles and other crafts they create, all to support the Elder Group they love.
On one stormy spring morning, about 20 individuals are in the group’s main meeting room at the IAC while five or six others are next door exercising together with Maria Tomazia, the group coordinator. Four women are playing sueca, a popular Portuguese card game. At another table women browse through magazines together looking for images for future projects. Other women knit as they chat with friends.
All of the conversation is in Portuguese.
The IAC created the group in 2014 because they saw the need for socialization, especially for older women many of whom had full family lives but now live alone, said Helena DaSilva Hughes, IAC president.
Unlike some social day programs, this group runs their own activities, make and share their own food and coffee, and tell staff how they would like to spend their time.
DaSilva Hughes grins when asked who leads the group — IAC staff or the members themselves.
“They do what they want to do,” she said about group members. “It’s driven by them. We give them space and we coordinate events for them. We don’t tell them what they want.”
“It’s important for them to know that their voices are heard,” she added.
That’s part of the group’s success DaSilva Hughes and Tomazia both suggest. “We offer them an opportunity where they can come and they can relate to each other,” Tomazia said. “We appreciate them and their wisdom and talent.”
DaSilva Hughes attributes the sense of independence and fierceness to the women’s decision to immigrate to the U.S. early in their lives.
“These are women who packed up their bags and left their home to give their children a better life,” she said.
As women who came to the U.S. with very little, typically had eight or more children and worked outside the home, often in the textile mills, the Elder Group importantly offers a chance for recreational activities that many had no time for during their working lives.
“Now they get to see some of the places they’ve never been,” DaSilva Hughes said.
Members who were asked why they attend gave varied, but similar, responses — “To be with each other.” To leave the house.” “To have fun. “To learn crochet.” “To socialize.”
Early on in its existence, the Elder Group formed a special Embracing Aging subgroup that produced a book of poetry in Portuguese on the subject. One of the poems talked about the Elder Group and what it means to the author, identified only as Maria. The portrait, even loosely summarized in English, conveys the spirit of the group and its meaning to those who participate.
“Maria tells us that it is a place to spend time with friends and familiar faces, to play bingo, to have a meal together and to support each other. It is a place to sing old songs even if you do not remember all the words anymore and to recall the good old days and reflect on the sad ones. It is a place to dance, to tell jokes, to laugh, to knit and to pray. It is our group called “Embracing Aging.”
The IAC hopes to expand the program to four days a week and is talking to Coastline about offering culturally-appropriate meals on site. A recent Christmas meal, for example, served cod fish which the group loved, DaSilva Hughes said. Cacoila is another favorite, she said, adding, “They don’t even make that for themselves.”
There is also discussion about creating something similar for New Bedford area elders from other cultures, DaSilva Hughes said.
The impact of having a shared culture and language should not be underestimated when forming social groups, she suggested. One woman, for example, brought her Portuguese husband to IAC after having visited other socializing programs. He was in the beginning stages of dementia but was resistant to joining a group.
When he saw the Elder Group, he became visibly emotional.
“He said, ‘Now this is the place I want to be,” said DaSilva Hughes, adding that he felt at home because everyone spoke Portuguese.