Note: The initial interview and writing of this article was completed pre-pandemic. A follow up interview was done virtually in May 2021.

The Senior Social Club: Socially Engaging Older Adults

For Cerritos Baptist Church, creating more opportunities to engage older adults was their way of addressing socially isolated members in their congregation. They expanded their fellowship and gathering program in 2019 to address their senior members’ social needs.  

The idea originated from Nancy Nagayama, a member of the church’s senior ministry steering committee. “My mother’s church is Faith United Methodist Church in Torrance, and they have something like [this gathering] where [older adults] drop in and hang out. And I thought, oh, this would be fun.” Nancy was quick to talk to the rest of the steering committee, and with the support of Keiro’s Grants Program, the program was up and running in February 2019. After multiple discussions, the group decided that rather than just a social gathering, they would also include presentations led by guest speakers. “That way, not only do [attendees] have time for community but [they get] to learn something new, especially if you are planning to age in place.”    

A Purpose to Gather

The Senior Fellowship gatherings were held one Wednesday per month and once per quarter on Sunday. The Wednesday gatherings have brought together 40 older adults and caregivers, while the Sunday get-together regularly attracts 70 people. So-called “super seniors” (over the age of 80) particularly enjoy attending the Wednesday Senior Fellowship group. The Keiro Grant supports lunches for these get-togethers, as well as honoraria for guest speakers. Seminar topics have catered to the audience, ranging from senior scams, memory impairments, and ways to maintain good brain health. Participants have enjoyed these seminars and are always eager to listen and learn.

The “super seniors” are among the more frequent attendees, and some in this group did not previously attend church regularly. Bessie Yuen, another steering committee member, shared with a smile, “I see them bring raffle prizes and special desserts. They bring it on their own, and they want to do it. Everyone wanted to help out in some way and perhaps that is what motivates people to get together.”

Programs Create New Programs

After an exercise activity was included in one of the gatherings, it sparked an idea for a new program. “At first, we were only planning on doing [exercise] for six weeks, but demand just kept growing and we ended up launching an official weekly exercise class for seniors,” explained Dexter Yuen, the church’s board chair.

“There are around 15 participants who consistently attend, which doesn’t seem like much, but over half of them are over 80.” He mentioned how impressed he is that these older adults have created permanent bonds that bring them together. “A lot of those ladies go out to lunch together after, and it’s not organized by us. They did it on their own. It shows evidence of the kind of connections they are making from the program.”

In a Time of Pandemic: Connecting Through Calls

Building on the foundation from program’s 2019 start, the committee was looking forward to expanding through scheduling field trips in 2020. This would allow older adults and their family caregivers to socialize and spend time with people other than their immediate family. The unexpected pandemic led them to change course.

Dexter recalled that it took them several months to shift their programming. One of the first things they came up with were “care calls” to check in via phone calls to older adults to make sure they have all their needs met.

Nancy shared that this not only was a small way to stay connected with the members, but also became a helpful support system for some. “There was one older adult who turned to their care caller when there was an emergency with her husband. The couple didn’t have children or family in the area, so the care caller got involved. It was really helpful for the wife to have someone they could call at a time like that.”

They eventually began providing bento deliveries once a month to the most vulnerable older adults in their congregation, as well as send out quarterly publications led by Pastor Gary Tawa which became additional resources for members to stay up-to-date with their congregation. They did see limitations on how many older adults they can serve though, assessing the risks and benefits of holding these deliveries during the pandemic.

One thing both Dexter and Nancy mentioned was how wonderful their congregation members were when asked to volunteer. “I thought a lack of volunteers would be a problem, but it never happened,” shared Dexter. “I am amazed at how dedicated and helpful the volunteers of our congregations are. We always had plenty.” The team looks forward to the day when in-person can resume to gather once again.