My trip to the Arirang Age-Friendly Community Centre Text & Visual by Emily Jung
I am 28 years old.
My snake plant is 1 years old and still so tiny. Illustration by Emily Jung.
28 years is arguably a long period of time (considering the average lifespan of a person is 73 years old). But I don’t tend to think about it much.
More things that I don’t think about so much:
I blink around 12 times per minute. I make one to two glasses of iced coffee each morning. I sit down in the sun whenever there is sun and whenever there is time. I don’t like to eat anything in the morning, so I eat around two meals per day. I stare at my young snake plant. I look at the ice cubes in my coffee (I consume around 10 cubes each time).
All temporary moments floating—fleeing.
Sometimes, I stare at things without blinking, as if I can make time go slower by staying in that moment. It’s my small revolt against the passing time; and this habit has punished me with a chronic dry eyes condition.
Based on my 28 years of experience, I can make a confident hypothesis: one day, I will wake up, I’ll make coffee, I’ll stare at my many big, old snake plants, and no matter how hard I try not to blink—37 years will have passed. I will be 65 years old.
65 is the age we enter the senior demographic.
View of Milal Church from the bus stop. Photo by Emily Jung.
The Arirang Age-Friendly Community Centre is a Toronto-based non-profit organization that develops health programs and services for Korean seniors and their caregivers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). For ease of reading, I’ll call the centre Arirang going forward.
Arirang is located in Milal Church, a large Korean-language church in a relatively remote site in a commercial area of North York.
The church recently invested $200,000 to renovate one of their spaces so that the Arirang’s Adult Day Program can satisfy the facility conditions required by the government. The doors must be securely locked and accessible only by staff with key cards. There needs to be a large open kitchen area and accessible bathrooms.
The bus drops me off at a stop right across the street from the church. Whenever a bus makes an exact stop in a remote area like this, I feel like I was meant to arrive in that location.
I am greeted by Lee Jiyeon, one of the founders of Arirang, who runs the centre with a small team and a supportive Board of Directors. She checks my temperature, asks COVID-screening questions, and explains the strict COVID protocols that are in place. Temperatures and screening questions are diligently written down in a neat binder. Jiyeon shows me masks that are custom-fit for each individual and detailed cleaning schedules.
As soon as I sit down, she hands me a booklet: A Guide to Programs and Services for Seniors. It’s a 118-page document walking you through social service organizations, taxes, pensions, public health, housing, safety concerns, and key contacts to reach the Canadian government at all levels.
“The Canadian government has this booklet translated into Korean,” she says as she points to the booklet with a kind of complicated smile. “As you can see, they list social service organizations and their contacts here. Very helpful, right? But if our elders call this number, is there someone on the other line who can speak Korean?”
Probably not. I mirror her complicated smile.
Photo by Emily Jung.
Arirang is currently conducting a survey to identify and better understand the health and long-term needs of Korean-Canadian seniors and their caregivers living in the GTA.
I summon my inner 65-year-old grandma and follow the survey.
“What is your marital status?”
I am single. My patience for people grew thinner every year, until there was none.
“What is your employment status?”
I’m a millennial. I will have to work until my bones turn to ash. (Here, I will probably laugh like a Korean grandma: “Hohuhuhohoho.”)
“How much do you know about Home and Community Care Support Services in Canada?”
“What is most important to you when thinking about senior care services? Choose up to three priorities”
Caregiver who speaks Korean
Programs that reflect Korean culture
Service that provides Korean food
Infrastructure (such as a newly renovated and clean building)
Caregiver who gives a lot of care, even if they don’t speak Korean
“How independent do you feel about your abilities to do day-to-day tasks?”
“How satisfied are you about your general quality of life?”
“How often do you feel lonely?”
The cups that are used to serve water felt very familiar. Illustration by Emily Jung.
There are around 198,200 Canadians of Korean origin in Canada. Arirang (and now under Arirang, the Rose of Sharon Long-Term Care home) is the only government-supported, culture-specific senior service provided to Korean-Canadians in the country.
And there are only 25 spots for Arirang’s Adult Day Program. Per government standards, the maximum capacity is five seniors per staff. There are currently 80 seniors waitlisted.
The 25 seniors are led to sit in a circle, and they follow along with a doctor to do rehabilitation exercises. One of many activities for the day, these exercises are designed by healthcare practitioners to help clients with their physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
Raising both arms, stretching them forward, bending over as much as possible—each movement requires focus, full attention, and sometimes, assistance.
“조금만 더 버텨볼게요 (We’ll try to hold here a little bit more),” the facilitator says, straining her voice as if she’s sharing the struggle. “아이고! 너무 잘하시네 (Aigo! You did so well)," she says in a breath out, like a sigh of relief.
I briefly think about the time I started learning English—how much intention and effort it took to visualize what I wanted to communicate, simplify it into the few English expressions that I knew how to say, and simmer the sounds at the back of my throat, and how much my tongue struggled as I let out the unfamiliar words:
“My name is Emily.”
I could almost cry at the end of this sentence. To witness struggle is a complex honour.
Seniors at the centre were showing each other photos of their families, children and grandchildren, from their phones. Illustration by Emily Jung.
After the exercise, fresh watermelon is served as the seniors gather around the television for a break. There are no windows in this room, but a large television stands in the common area, opening into an outdoor trot (트로트) music concert in Korea. I think about how trot songs hit that sweet spot of lively and sad when Jiyeon asks if I would like some watermelon. I politely decline.
A few moments later, one of the staff brings me a plate.
“시원하게 수박 좀 드세요 (Have some refreshing watermelon),” she says. I thank her as I bite into the watermelon. Damn, how do Korean people know how to pick the sweetest watermelon? It’s a skill I still haven’t mastered.
I notice an interesting activity in the program schedule: Yut Nori (윷놀이), a traditional Korean board game.
“The seniors here don’t really care for Bingo. They love Korean games like Yut Nori. Zero interest in Bingo. So imagine how hard it is for seniors who go to other (non-Korean) programs: they will have to play Bingo all the time.”
I’m also not a fan of Bingo. I don’t look forward to a day when I am stuck in Bingo purgatory.
Illustration by Emily Jung.
“How were things for Arirang clients during the COVID-19 lockdowns?” I asked Jiyeon, struggling to bite into the third watermelon.
During the pandemic, Jiyeon and her team executed no-contact delivery of schedules, along with an activity box, to their clients. The schedule considered that many seniors will forget to take their medicine or have a meal, so it’s broken down in detail. For example, 10 a.m. is exercise time, along with an illustrated instruction of a stretch exercise. At 11 a.m., they should flip to an activity paper called “Mirror Mirror.” At 12 p.m., they should take their medicine and make sure to eat lunch.
“The loneliness itself wasn’t the biggest concern,” Jiyeon told me. “Many seniors who are clients of Arirang live in isolation, and sometimes they will forget to eat or forget to take their medicine. This can have dire consequences for folks their age.”
She then brings me an activity box. “Try some of the puzzles and activities. It’s fun." She says this as she goes around the room checking in with the staff. It’s actually quite fun. The exercises are easy to follow, but they are also challenging. I try to come up with nine words that include the consonants ㄷ (d sound) and ㅊ (ch sound).
도착 (arrival), 도청 (wiretapping), 단추 (button), 대책 (measures), 대추 (jujube), 대출 (loan), 단총 (short gun), 대충 (not putting in an effort), 대체 (how).
Some of the activities require your full and uninterrupted attention. In the photo below, ingredients are listed on the “store” page with prices listed underneath. On the right-hand side, you must write down all the ingredients you need to make soondubu jjigae (순두부 찌개) and add up how much everything will cost. It asks you to write down your special trick for the recipe. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the completed exercises, and don’t have any special tricks to share.)
Activity page of an at-home exercise. Photo by Emily Jung.
Seniors are one of the most at-risk demographics in the COVID-19 pandemic. I trace my memory back to the spring of 2020: I am glued to the screen as the Prime Minister appears on livestreams to address the pandemic as it changes rapidly. He expresses anger and disappointment about media reports on the poor conditions of senior homes across the country. Statistics Canada reported that “between the end of March 2020 and mid-May 2021, there were over 353,000 deaths in Canada. Canadians aged 65 and older accounted for most of those deaths (80 percent or 283,227).”
Korean-Canadians protest against the proposed sale of the Rose of Sharon home in 2020. Illustration by Emily Jung.
It was during the pandemic that the team at Arirang, including Jiyeon and the Board of Directors, began fundraising to purchase the Rose of Sharon Korean Long-Term Care Home. This 60-bed facility is the only government-subsidized, Korean culture–specific long-term care facility in the country. This plan is finally coming to a close after a decade of efforts to ensure the ownership of this care home stays within the Korean community. Arirang’s work in operating the centre will prepare the Korean community for the coming decades, as our growing Korean-Canadian community ages.
Jiyeon told me about an interesting theory someone once raised with her: “Second-generation immigrants (and onwards) will not need culture-specific senior services, as they speak English and have assimilated into mainstream Canadian society. Therefore, as time passes, there will be a declining need for culture-specific services.”
She says while this may be true, we can look to examples like the Italian-Canadian community. The Italian immigration history in Canada exceeds 100 years, yet there are still thriving Italian adult day programs and senior services.
I am fully bilingual (or I’d like to think I am), so I summon my bilingual, 65-year-old self again to see if this is true.
I imagine myself in a senior home. I haven’t heard anyone speak Korean to me in a long time. My mind is traveling far. Somebody speaks to me in English.
Will I respond?
Do I want to respond?
Can I respond?
I turn on my Korean drama.
I tune the English out.
Cultural connection is essential to our well-being.
Fashionable Mr. Kim. Illustration by Emily Jung.
One of the Adult Day Programs clients (we will call him Kim) is 88 years old. He is very fashionable, wearing a Lacoste vest over a navy checkered shirt and with short, spiky white hair styled in a very hip way.
I’m conscious of my simple beige dress and messy hair, tied quickly into a bun. “I can’t hear very well. Please let me know if I’m not answering your interview questions correctly,” he says to me.
In the 1960s, the Canadian government addressed racism in its immigration policies, calling for new immigrants, even those of non-European ancestry.
Around the same time, West Germany (in partnership with the South Korean government) recruited over 18,000 Korean migrant workers to provide labour as miners and nurses.
Several hundred of them immigrated from Germany to Canada during this time. Kim was one of them. In 1965, he arrived alone in Toronto. He told me that seeing a Korean person, or even an Asian person, was very rare (귀하다; the direct translation of this word is actually closer to “precious,” which I’ve always loved).
He told me about the first few years he had to spend alone, how confusing his first layoff from a factory was, and how he once walked into a detention centre just north of Danforth Avenue, looking for work, because he assumed big buildings were probably factories.
“I experienced loneliness like no other, so I got a dog from the animal shelter. I don’t even know what breed it was, and it was troublesome to take care of, but the dog helped me so much.”
After a few years, he was able to sponsor his family in Korea to join him in Canada. He laughed as he said, “My children are reaching their 60s now,” but he talked about his daughter’s love story as if she were still in her 20s.
I thanked him for speaking with me. Throughout the day, whenever I made eye contact with him, I would smile and do a small head-bow from afar, and he would return the gesture.
It’s easy to think of Korean seniors in the Arirang program as elders who are “foreign” to Canada. Kim has lived in Toronto for over 50 years; he lived the majority of his life in Canada. He gave his labour to this country. His children are educated, married, working, and living here. Now his children are married with their own families, and his wife has passed away.
He deeply benefits from this culture-specific adult day program.
My family immigrated to Canada in 2004. Years down the road, when I am 88 years old, I wonder if a young person like me will ask me about my immigrant story. I wonder what I will tell her. I wonder if I will remember Kim, a 20-minute glimpse of Toronto in 1965.
When I am 88 years old, I will have lived in Canada for 78 years. Out in the streets, will I still be foreign?
Activity page of an at-home exercise. Photo by Emily Jung.
There is a Korean word that I love, but is very difficult to translate:
It’s closest to the word “pretty,” but it’s not quite the perfect translation. It means beautiful, like silky and soft textures. Pretty, like bright red skirts. Pretty in a way that time has untouched.
In Korean, there is a common expression, “곱게 늙어야지 (one must grow older in a 고운 way).” Though often thrown around casually, the expression cuts deeply into its subtext:
“One must age like age has not gotten the best of them.”
There is a portfolio of physical and mental strains that we become vulnerable to as we age, and it is in that blink of an eye, a layer of marginalization is added to our already political, already polarized Asian bodies.
The essence of aging is in its perseverance and the struggle to survive. So how long have we been aging? How much more has the diaspora struggle aged our parents? Aged us? Are they “pretty” in our eyes? When we give ourselves up to the years of struggle and survival, do we still deserve care?
View of the sky from Milal Church. Photo by Emily Jung.
Jiyeon started Arirang when she went to check in on a Korean friend’s elderly father. She found him lying on the bed and unable to move, because he had become malnourished in isolation. She realized that there was no proper infrastructure for Korean senior care and knew that someone had to begin the work.
As the Arirang Age-Friendly Community Centre turns almost 10 years old—and as the community successfully fundraised to keep the Rose of Sharon Long-Term Care Home under Korean care—she stresses that there is much more work to do.
Building a community-driven future is not an act of charity; rather, it is participating in designing a more inclusive future in the direction we are all headed.
In 30 years, how old will you be?
How about in 50 years? How do you take your coffee? How old are your plants? What are your most precious possessions? What is your relationship to this land? In whose traditional territory will you spend the rest of your days?
If you run into me after 50 years, and I am still here and aging in my place, and you tell me that you remember reading this piece, I will give you one of my many snake plants and smile. I may even offer you a story.
And I hope that you in 50 years, whoever you've become, are receiving the care (that is culturally relevant to you) that you so very much deserve.
I would like to thank the team at choa magazine for connecting me to the community centre, and for Ms. Lee Jiyeon, and Mr. Kim for speaking with me.
Emily Jung is an interdisciplinary artist/artsworker working in Toronto with a focus on the nonprofit arts sector. Whether in artistic or in administrative capacity, she attempts to offer her labour in the forms of simplicity, clarity, care, and empathy. She is currently working on kickstarting a grassroots arts collective, Labour In The Arts, and developing the play “Dead Korean Girl Comedy Show.” | Web: emilyjung.com