The Okinawa Association of America (OAA) holds many titles. Not only is it the largest organization in the continental United States promoting Okinawan culture, but it is also one of the oldest and largest of its kind. For 110 years, the OAA has built a community of families and friends, preserving and celebrating Okinawan culture through education and exchange. 

Photo Courtesy of Okinawa Association of America

Now, as it opens a new decade, the OAA is hoping to support its older members with the help of Keiro’s Grants Program. The organization received its first Keiro grant three years ago, addressing its most immediate needs such as new air conditioning and building renovations. Once complete, organizers began directly addressing social isolation within the community through their “Surii Jurii” senior gatherings held at the newly renovated center. 

These casual gatherings, while seemingly small, have shown organizers, participants, and volunteers how engagement can positively impact a person’s quality of life. 

Ice Breakers

The Surii Jurii luncheons at the OAA Center are far from the ordinary. While attendees receive a regular bento and after-lunch programs focusing alternatively on Okinawan culture and older adult issues, OAA also introduces different ice breakers when they first arrive.

OAA Executive Direct Yuko Yamauchi, says it can catch some new faces off guard, but people unexpectedly find themselves enjoying the quick game. 

“There’s always a social activity first. It’s sort of our way of not just having someone come to lunch, sit and eat. There’s something to encourage you to talk with others.” Although these are icebreakers that Yuko often experienced through her college days, she found it challenging to find ones that were sensitive to different levels of mobility, hearing and even cultural/pop references. Initially hesitant, when explaining that these exercises not only help them to meet new people, but help exercise the mind, the participants were more immersed. “In that short 30 minutes, they’re focused on something else different from their usual daily routine.”

The luncheons address one of the many layers of social isolation. Though simple and small, these short ice breakers often loosen nerves and bring about friendly conversation in a safe space, helping older adults to connect with each other. 

The Extra Mile

On top of ice breakers, the OAA luncheons have taken their programming an extra step further by catering to two different groups, as they hold one lunch in English and another in Japanese each month. Yuko says it is a challenge coordinating and funding both, but it has given some members additional opportunities to socialize and interact with other OAA members. 

“We have a lot of people who attend both the English and Japanese gatherings and they feel like they can choose,” she says. “If someone missed one, they will actually opt to go to the other.” And while this isn’t a widespread practice, she says it does make a difference for those few, making it worthwhile. 

In addition to the occasional expansion, Yuko says the OAA also makes extra calls to its bento luncheon participants as another outreach opportunity. She admits that it is a challenge to put in the hours to call every person, but it’s that extra mile that can make the difference. 

“The OAA creates a list of those interested and those who have attended, and we call everybody.”

This added step and extended outreach is just another way the luncheon addresses social isolation. Those who may be disconnected from events and activities receive these phone calls. It can seem like a small gesture, but the outreach from a volunteer to an older adult can help organizers both inform them about the luncheon and provide a personal reminder and point of social contact. 

There are even calls made if someone had missed an event, asking them if they would like to attend in the near future. “In that way— we’re staying in touch and communicating with them.” 

New Questions for Older Adults

After being with the organization for 14 years, Yuko recognizes a real need to support older adults, especially after working with Keiro. She says a lot of focus and attention within the OAA has been on how to retain young people and attract new groups. “But what are we doing with our existing older members? Is there something we can do?” Yuko says those are the questions and requests she hopes to fill and answer in the future. 

Photo Courtesy of Joseph Kamiya

Her list of future programming includes computer classes, education on finances, scam prevention, and more. She would like to ultimately help older adults not feel like “the world is quickly phasing them out.” The next priority is transportation for OAA. It’s what Yuko hopes to dedicate more time to find solutions for this particular need. “When they get stuck at home, what is it that we can do?”