At the Wang YMCA of Chinatown, more than 400 seniors of Asian descent have participated in “Get Fit, Stay Fit for Life,” a free six-month program that brings adults 60 or over together for group exercises, counseling services, informative workshops and organized social activities.

YMCA“Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood in Boston, yet many seniors face social isolation as widows and widowers – living alone, feeling depressed, and often afraid to leave their homes,” said Richard Chin, Wang YMCA community development director. “This isolation is compounded by other challenges, like language barriers and cultural traditions. By offering a free program right here in the community, we’ve been able to give Chinese seniors a place to go, get healthy and make new friends.”

Mary O’Leary, director of corporate and foundation relations for the YMCA of Greater Boston, agrees. “The social aspects of this program are really important. One of our primary goals is to help these individuals build friendships and support networks. Families move, spouses die and the options for older adults are often very limited. One of the benefits of offering our program at the YMCA is that we’re based in the communities we serve and we’re able to respond to unique cultural factors.”

Wang YMCA staff speak three Chinese dialects — Mandarin, Cantonese and Toisanese – so they can communicate with program participants. They also understand the cultural challenges their client population faces and their need for trusting relationships with YMCA staff and other members.


One of Chin’s goals is to break the taboos many seniors worry about due to cultural differences. For example, Chin explained how many senior Chinese women think it’s wrong to expose their body in a bathing suit. “We have this great pool, but many women just joining the program wouldn’t go swimming until they saw other Chinese women doing it,” explained Chin. “They needed to first trust someone who looks like them to know it was OK. Now, these women are allowed to do things, like swimming in a bathing suit, that they were restricted from doing the majority of their lives. They feel liberated getting into the pool and it’s wonderful.”

“For immigrants coming to America, we need to make sure they have a quality of life that’s befitting of their efforts and struggles,” said Chin. “Here at the YMCA, we welcome them and help them get the best that America has to offer.”

This story was published originally in the Tufts Health Plan Foundation’s June 25, 2013 newsletter.