Boston has been home to immigrants from Haiti for decades, but until recently there were no senior centers in the state for native speakers of Haitian Creole.
Two such facilities have finally opened in Dorchester in the last seven months – and for retirees who do not speak English, this means an end to loneliness and isolation, and maybe even an opportunity to learn to read and write.
Sant Bel, also called the Haitian Adult Day Health Center, is located in a large carpeted room at 6 Frontenac St. in Dorchester. It opened in December and now serves 42 clients daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Decorated with paintings depicting Caribbean landscapes, and furnished with couches and chairs, it is on the ground floor behind a large window that looks like it may have once served as a storefront.
Everything at the center is conducted in Haitian Creole. The nurse speaks Creole, as does the van driver who takes seniors wherever they need to go, and the cook who prepares Caribbean meals. (Boiled or baked cassava was one of the items on a recent lunch menu.)
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Eliser Sydney, 78, who was a carpenter in Haiti, was enjoying a game of dominoes with a group of Haitian seniors at the center, while French Caribbean music blasted from speakers and a Haitian flag hung on the wall. He said he hadn’t played dominoes since he left his country eight years ago.
Before he joined the center, he said, he often felt depressed because his children didn’t have the time to go with him for appointments. He even had to go to the hospital by himself and communicate with the doctor without a translator.
“I feel way better than before, like a load has come off my shoulders,” he said in Creole.
At a nearby table, a group of women with colorful scarves covering their heads were learning how to sew, crochet, and embroider.
Hyde Park resident Odette Jeannite, 68, who paid for her children’s schooling in Haiti by making clothes on her sewing machine, was showing the other ladies how it’s done. Yvonne Laine, 76, was embroidering her name onto a cloth bag.
“Every morning at 5 in the morning, my eyes are wide awake, getting ready to come to the program,” she said.
The only other Haitian senior center in Massachusetts is also located in Dorchester and it opened its doors in July. Today that program, run by Kit Clark Senior Services, has 25 clients who come together daily to exercise, tell stories, and talk about news from back home. As at Sant Bel, the seniors don’t speak English, and many are illiterate.
“But if they want to write their names, I help them out. We do a lot of things you can’t even imagine,” said program manager Marthe Jean-Charles, who is Haitian. “We play basketball with a balloon, because a basketball is too hard and it can hit their glasses.”
Kit Clark is planning to move its Haitian program to a larger space in a month to double the number of clients, said Janet Gottler, the center’s director.
Senior centers for immigrants from other countries are also springing up.
According to Kristina Barry, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, there are currently 25 such foreign-language centers in the state, providing services in Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, and Polish. The first adult day health center for Armenian retirees opened in Watertown this month, and a Lynn facility opened its doors a few weeks earlier to Spanish-speaking elderly people.
Back in Dorchester, a Cape Verdean adult health center moved to a larger space in the fall, and less than a mile away on Dorchester Avenue, a Vietnamese senior center recently celebrated its first anniversary.
That facility, called SarahCare, is currently at capacity with 73 clients and has more than 200 people on a waiting list, according to its executive director, Alla Shlosman.
On a recent afternoon, seniors were there taking turns singing karaoke while watching Vietnamese music videos on a large screen and waiting for a company van to drive them home. In a nearby room, an origami dragon, made from triangles of colored paper, was displayed on a bookshelf.
Quincy resident Pha Pham, 74, who worked as a nurse when she was young, was waiting for her daughter to pick her up. Speaking in Vietnamese with translation from the center’s English as a Second Language teacher, she said she used to be bored at home because she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Now she enjoys games, dancing, and eating with other seniors from Vietnam.
“I love the family atmosphere here,” she said.