Mee Wong received a text message with a link to her COVID-19 test result.
Wong, 73, clicked on the link and was led to a website, asking her to confirm her date of birth. She spent a few minutes tapping and swiping at her phone figuring out how she might translate the page to Mandarin or Cantonese. Though she understands English, she knew many other Chinese seniors don’t and might never make it past the date of birth question.
Wong has been volunteering as a translator for the Chinese community at Senior Coastsiders, where COVID-19 testing started on Oct. 22. Already, she’s helped five Chinese seniors complete their intake form and administer the COVID-19 swab test.
As Senior Coastsiders ramped up its outreach to the senior community this week, language remains a barrier for the growing number of Chinese living in the senior housing complex who don’t read or speak English.
Hope Atmore, program manager at Senior Coastsiders, said flyers will be translated into Spanish and Mandarin for distribution to residents in the complex, and the testing will be announced in its weekly newsletter. But she suspects, based on past programs, word of mouth may be the most effective form of outreach.
The Chinese community can be elusive. Before the pandemic, there were regulars who sat together at meal times and about a dozen who attended the twice-a-week English classes. But when attendance would noticeably swell at holiday parties, staff didn’t know why.
Wong guessed there are about 50 Chinese seniors in the housing complex, but she can’t be sure. Before the pandemic, Wong used to spend half the week with her daughter in Daly City and the other half in one of the apartments for Half Moon Bay seniors. Only with the pandemic did she begin living full time in Half Moon Bay. In that way she considers herself a newcomer.
Another resident, Ho Wing Chui, estimates there are closer to 100 Chinese seniors. Chui, 74, a resident of the senior housing complex said he and the other Chinese seniors make up a tightly knit group connected over messaging apps like Whatsapp and WeChat. Often it is Chui telling the others when there is a party at the senior center.
“If the senior center tells me we have a party, then I tell them,” he said. “Because I write Chinese in WeChat, then everybody knows.”
Together Chui and Wong field almost all interpretation requests at Senior Coastsiders and the surrounding senior housing apartments. Both learned to speak English while attending school in Hong Kong, a former British colony, where English was mandated in the classroom. The other seniors, many of whom emigrated from mainland China, don’t speak any English.
Altogether, Chui speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Taishanese, a dialect of Southern China that he learned from his neighbor in Hong Kong. Wong is only fluent in Cantonese, the native tongue of Hong Kong, but she will still translate for seniors who speak Mandarin, the language largely spoken in mainland China. The languages are similar enough that she can “handle” Mandarin, she said.
“I tell them to slow down, so I can catch it, just like English,” she said.
Half Moon Bay is fast becoming a home to Chinese seniors as housing options for the elderly on the Peninsula and north of Pacifica are harder to secure. When Chui was looking to move out of his daughter’s home, he remembered a facility in San Francisco had a 10-year waitlist. San Mateo had a wait of four to five years. In Half Moon Bay, the wait was just a year or two.
As the city of Half Moon Bay continues offering COVID-19 testing in partnership with Senior Coastsiders, staff expect they’ll better understand the community’s language access needs in the coming weeks. Karen Decker of the city manager’s office said city staff anticipate Mandarin language need and “there is a plan in place for that.”
Recently, the city made registration easier by adding a Spanish line to its call-in number through a contract with On Point Language Solutions. And it may add a Mandarin line, according to the city manager’s office.
This week will be the first session following a coordinated outreach effort by Senior Coastsiders, and Wong said she has committed to volunteering, though it is unclear how many Chinese seniors will come.
Wong has told others of the free testing at the senior center but some are reluctant to come when they are symptom-free.
For Chui, he doubts the usefulness of a COVID test, especially with seniors still going out, visiting family members or grocery shopping.
“One day you’re negative and the next day you’re positive,” Chui said.
“My thinking is, if you get tested, at least you know you’re healthy,” Wong said.
Atmore at Senior Coastsiders said staff and volunteers have been working to make testing easy and convenient for seniors, an important group to monitor given their vulnerability to the virus. If done right, testing could detect a positive case and motivate staff to act fast to prevent a spread.
“The campus is made up of congregate living facilities — they share doors, laundry facilities,” she said. “So to keep track of any infections there is really huge.”