Center eases aging in a new country

It's Tuesday morning at Shamrock Senior Center.

Sofiya Ilnitskaya, 81, from Ukraine is in a hallway with a volunteer tutor, practicing for her U.S. citizenship test.

Loc Lec, 79, from Vietnam is in a classroom learning English.

Ai-Ling Adams-Taylor, 63, from the Caribbean island of Curacao is sitting in her motorized wheelchair beneath wall clocks that show the time in Charlotte, London, Mexico City and Moscow.

It's a typical day at a not-so-typical senior center.

Shamrock is the only one of Mecklenburg County's six centers honored as a center of excellence by the N.C. Division of Aging and Adult Services. This means it's a model others can look to for quality programming.

But Shamrock is also unique because at least half the people served here are immigrants, many of whom had to flee their country as refugees. For them, the center offers “America 101” five days a week in the small stucco building in east Charlotte.

In the U.S., older adults are often dismissed simply because of their age.

“If they don't speak our language or they do something that's culturally unacceptable – like keeping chickens in their back yard – that further isolates them,” says Trena Palmer, executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Senior Centers.

At Shamrock, immigrants learn English as well as basic lessons of life in Charlotte – like not to barter at grocery stores and that it's safer to keep your money in the bank instead of hidden in coffee cans at home.

“I tell them you can trust the police department here – it's not like in your country,” says Shamrock director Myra Green. “I bring police over who speak their language – Spanish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese.”

Sofiya Ilnitskaya, a Shamrock regular, solved the mystery of the loud siren at her apartment complex through a program at the center.

“We brought the fire department and an interpreter,” Green says, to explain that the siren where she and other immigrants live signals a fire drill, meaning everyone should go immediately to the parking lot.

On this Tuesday morning, 15 refugees from Cuba, Russia, Somalia and Vietnam are learning English in a room that also holds two recumbent bikes for exercise class.

Across the hall, 13 more are in a class preparing for their citizenship test. The computer lab down the hall does double-duty, with a few seniors working on computers while others get help with the maze of paperwork required to apply for immigration.

In the dining room 25 people eat chicken for lunch, while director Green shows a visitor the tomatoes, blueberries and rosemary seniors have planted in the garden.

As Green moves through the center, she greets arriving seniors in English and her native Spanish.

She came to Charlotte from the Dominican Republic as a newlywed in 1985 and knows how overwhelming it can feel to learn a new culture.

Her memory of her own transition propels her forward as she strives to smooth the way for others – like Sofiya Ilnitskaya, who passed her citizenship test two days later.