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The Boston Globe: “Familiar breeds contentment Ethnic-based senior centers offer comforts of old country”

To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year they wore bright red sweaters and scarves. Some painted their lips red. They played a kissing game with strangers, a cross between spin the bottle and musical chairs – the males danced in a circle around the females and kissed the closest lady when the music stopped.

The organizers of the game urged them on: “Why are you running to the same lady? Don’t you want to kiss someone new?”

But this was not a group of love-hungry teenagers.

Instead of heels and mini skirts, they carried walkers and canes. One man said he has shrapnel from World War II embedded in his head. Of the 70 people in the room, the women significantly outnumbered the men. And the average age was 80.

There was also another difference: They all spoke Russian.

At this Newton senior center called “Zdorovie,” or “health” in their native tongue, Russian-speaking immigrants socialize and go on walks by the Charles River, which runs near the California Street facility. The center is financed by Medicare and MassHealth, the state’s insurance program for eligible residents, and it offers Russian food for breakfast and lunch, exercise, and the services of a nurse. The clients’ medications are monitored and a van drives them to medical appointments.

Among themselves, the seniors refer to the center in Russian as a “kindergarten.”

There are 25 adult day health centers that cater to foreign-language-speaking seniors in Massachusetts, including eight Russian programs, according Kristina Barry, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Zdorovie, which was founded almost three years ago, increased its capacity from 50 to 75 clients in the fall, and the company that operates it is planning to open another center in the area, assistant director Anna Nikaeva said. There are also senior centers for Russian-speakers in Needham and Watertown.

“There is a demand for these programs because people who don’t speak English just don’t want to go anyplace else,” Nikaeva said.

Russian-speaking businessmen are also establishing senior centers for non-Russian elders, including the state’s first adult day health center for Armenian retirees that opened in Watertown last month. The center, called “Arevik,” or little sun, serves natives of Armenia and its surrounding countries, said its chief executive, Andrew Feldman.

This winter, Russian immigrants also opened a Dorchester senior center for Haitians and a Lynn facility for Spanish-speakers – the first Latin-American senior center on the North Shore.

Greg Granovsky, the manager of Lynn Zabota, the Russian adult day health center company that runs the Spanish senior center, said his company plans to open a center for Cambodian seniors at the end of the year, in another first for Massachusetts.

All the centers follow a similar model: they hire staff who speak the language of the clients, serve culturally familiar foods, and provide culturally specific entertainment. Haitian seniors watch Haitian films and have cassava for lunch. Russian seniors sing Russian songs and celebrate Russian holidays. The idea is to bring together seniors to socialize with peers who speak their language.

Oleg Uritsky and Igor Shreyer, co-owners of the Haitian center in Dorchester, said that as immigrants themselves, they are better suited to understand the problems of other immigrants – including the importance of language, food and customs. Uritsky, who moved to the United States from Moscow in 1991, said his mother attends a similar senior center for Russian-speakers in Boston.

In Marlborough, Yury Dashevsky (also known as George Dash), the manager of the Aging Well Adult Day Health Center, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last month, said senior centers that serve people from ethnic communities have a business advantage because they can attract clients without advertising. While American clients are referred to his health center by agencies, Dashevsky said, all of his Russian seniors have a personal connection.

“Russians don’t have one person referred by an agency because it’s an ethnic thing,” he said. “They are referred by the word of mouth.”

But, he said, because the market is already oversaturated with Russian senior centers, they are now organizing centers for other ethnic groups.

According to the state’s human services agency, there are eight Russian senior centers across Massachusetts, followed by six Latin American senior centers, three Chinese centers, and two apiece for Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, and Haitian communities.

The program in Marlborough caters to both American and Russian seniors, with Russians making up about 25 percent of the clientele, Dashevsky said. The center currently features Russian-style meals, like the traditional beet soup known as borscht, a bilingual nurse, and a chorus that performs in two languages. He also said his company is planning to add another linguistic community in the area – with Spanish being one possibility.

At Newton’s Zdorovie, the atmosphere is multicultural but in a different way.

The cook is from Uzbekistan. One driver is from Chechnya, while the other is from Armenia. The elderly clients are mostly Jewish. It is as if the Soviet Union had never broken apart into 15 countries.

Nina Mikhaleva, 82, who has been attending Zdorovie for almost three years, said the center never misses a chance to celebrate a holiday – be it Jewish, Russian, or American.

“It’s very good for lonely people,” she said in Russian. “People who stay at home get depressed and lose their reason.”

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