As a community center serving all ages, the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (GVJCI) had a full spectrum of changes to adapt to when the COVID-19 pandemic began. For their older adult programs, this included transitioning to a virtual class format and introducing the community to the new platform. Stephanie Mayeda, program manager at GVJCI, has been involved in this process from the beginning. As GVJCI’s program implementation is partially supported through Keiro’s Grants Program, Stephanie met with Keiro to discuss how this experience has been for GVJCI and its members, noting the challenges that have accompanied their successes and sharing where she hopes 2021 will head.

Transitioning Programs and Encouraging Attendance From Home

When adapting to the pandemic shift, GVJCI first assessed the situation to figure out how they could continue to serve their older adult population. Along with a group of volunteers, Stephanie made check-in calls to around 600 senior members and started looking at how they could provide their Tomo No Kai (senior group) programs for older adults online.

First came the Zoom learning curve. Stephanie recalled, “We spent maybe a month or so teaching our Tomo No Kai teachers how to use Zoom.” GVJCI launched their first virtual senior programs in August, providing multiple classes a week for both Japanese and English-speaking older adults. Some of these classes have included low-impact exercise, hula, and other movement classes in English, as well as bilingual classes in meditation and Japanese language and culture.

“It’s been difficult,” Stephanie admitted, describing the changes that the programs underwent. “We can’t do everything online like we did on site, like karaoke classes and ukulele.” She said that despite the online services they do provide, it is still a challenge to motivate older adults to attend. “The hardest part, I think, is just getting people to want to try Zoom,” she said. “We noticed this sentiment throughout 2020 of, ‘Oh I’m sure you guys are going to reopen soon! That’s okay.’” Nevertheless, GVJCI continues to spread news of these opportunities to their community members through newsletters, advertisements, and phone calls.

Physical Fitness Class for older adults (Photo Courtesy: Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute)

Celebrating Successes and Lessons Learned

Despite the challenges of the past year, Stephanie noted some of the successes that GVJCI has had with its older adults. She reported that their virtual programs have received positive feedback from those who have attended, describing, “They really like it! The ones that are attending, they’ve been with us since day one. We appreciate they learned how to use Zoom, and now they really enjoy that it’s a part of their routine.”

Facing these unique challenges has also shown Stephanie a different aspect of serving older adults. “Making all those phone calls last year, I realized that not all of them have a support system or live with somebody, and they were coming to GVJCI for their social interaction,” she said. “Now that in-person interaction is gone— it’s important to have programs and workshops and services for older adults.”

New Visions for the New Year

As the community enters into a new physically distanced year, Stephanie hopes that this fresh start will bring new interest for the virtual programs that GVJCI is offering to its older adults. The organization has made innovative plans for 2021 as well: Starting in January, they began hosting special monthly classes of varying topics (like the first month’s pick, watercolor painting). The online platform to sign up for these classes has also been updated, making it easier to access the Zoom meetings.

Stephanie looks forward to seeing how these changes may encourage more older adults to participate. Still, as she mentioned, “The challenge is just getting people to try it out.” With these prospective attendees in mind, Stephanie shared, “Although it’s always good to be optimistic about the pandemic, I think there comes a point when you should just try the programs out! I guess my final message would be: We don’t know when we’re going to reopen, so consider just taking a class or two. See how you like it!”

For more information on GVJCI’s programs, click here