If Mohammad Rahro, 91, had gone to just any senior center in Maryland, chances are he would not have encountered someone who remembered the headmaster with four wives who rode to school each day on a beloved white donkey.
Instead, on his first day at the Loving Care Adult Medical Day Care Center in Gaithersburg, he ran into Ali Ameri, 96. Rahro’s hair was sparse and he leaned on a walker, but Ameri recognized him immediately — the two were schoolmates in Tehran in the early 1930s.
“As a child he was just the same,” Ameri said teasingly. “He didn’t laugh, he didn’t cry, he didn’t say anything.”
Rahro grinned. “Oh, go tell another one,” he said.
Loving Care, which opened last June, is one of a growing number of senior facilities in the Washington region and nationally that cater to people from specific cultures and nationalities — people who moved to the United States too late in life to share their American peers’ memories of the jitterbug, the Depression or Postum coffee substitute.
To them, going to mainstream senior centers, with their American food and songs and jokes, can feel even lonelier than staying home. But at a center like this — which serves Iranian stew for lunch, offers lectures and field trips in Farsi and keeps a caged cockatiel in the entryway — seniors can relax into the comforts of their homeland and rediscover their position in a local community.
“In our fast-paced society, people with old languages and old customs often find they don’t have a place; we find younger people assuming the roles of responsibility, and elders get displaced,” said Andrew Scharlach, a professor of aging at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. “Having a place where their knowledge, wisdom and skills are recognized is important.”
As the number of immigrants in the United States has soared, the number of elderly immigrants has similarly risen. About 5.2 million people who are 65 and older were born abroad, up from 2.7 million in 1990, according to 2011 Census statistics.
In response, more senior facilities are recognizing the importance of cultural relevance, said Jay White, director of professional and community development at Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of gerontology. “We do see a trend in senior centers . . . being more culturally competent and making more effort to integrate the cultures and the food into the care,” he said.
Many grew up in societies where the elderly were venerated and were integrated into the fabric of family and community. But around the world, from Tehran to Beijing to Seoul, modern life means more adults working longer hours outside the home, leaving elderly people alone.
Their sense of alienation is compounded in America, where suburban geography and linguistic barriers make it harder for them to meet and socialize.
“Most of them are very sad,” said Vivien Hsueh, vice president of the eight-year-old Chinese American Senior Services Association, which serves around 2,700 seniors in 10 locations around Montgomery County. Many come to read local Chinese language newspapers, play mah-jongg and socialize in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Elderly immigrants often forsake active social and professional lives at home to care for their grandchildren in America while their children work, Hsueh said.
“By the time the grandkids grow up they find they have no friends, don’t speak the language, don’t drive,” she said. “They are very isolated.”
Yi Lan Lu, 64, spends most days looking after her granddaughter in College Park. But last year she discovered the Chinese American association’s center at the Upper County Community Center in Gaithersburg, where seniors come two days a week for Chinese chorus, Mongolian dance class, a knitting circle, citizenship classes, and state and county subsidized lunches.
“I’ve made a lot of friends here,” she said. “Today I told my daughter-in-law, ‘I have to go there, I miss everybody,’ so she said, ‘Okay, I’ll take the day off.’ ”
In places like Centreville, which has a large Korean population, it can be hard to assimilate even outside the home. When Korean seniors go out, there are plenty of Korean businesses to choose from.
“So they’ve lived here 20 years, but they still live the Korean way. They can go to the Korean grocery to buy everything; they have their own dry cleaning,” said Heisung Lee, executive director of Central Senior Center in Centreville, which serves Korean seniors two days a week.
It is only in their 70s and 80s, after their grandchildren have grown, she said, that many take the time to “find themselves.”
At Central Senior Center, around 470 seniors pay $40 to $45 a semester to attend classes and eat a Korean lunch made by an in-house cook. Last Tuesday at the center, which uses space donated by the Korean Central Presbyterian Church, room after room was filled with elderly Koreans, the women’s hair coiffed into soft waves as they worked on knitting, ink-brush calligraphy, English and computer literacy.
The center is contracted with the Fairfax County Agency on Aging, and the county pays for meals and provides the bulk of the transportation. (The center also provides a county-subsidized Korean Meals on Wheels.)
In a memoir-writing class, an elderly Korean man in a black beret and a sea-green tie gave seniors lessons on finding the poetry in their own life stories. In a guitar class, students learned to sing and strum a Korean Mother’s Day song.
Young Kim, 70, of Woodbridge wore a cowboy hat and a gold bolero tie as he joined others for a lunch of kimchi and rice. A one-time student of guitar at the center, he now assists the instructor. “Showing off,” he said with a smile, pointing at his hat.
At Loving Care, whose 78 seniors are almost all from Iran, clients receive medical care, physical therapy and psychotherapy. They are chauffeured to doctor’s appointments and shopping trips. The center also provides classes, movies, lectures and $5 hair appointments. The services, available six days a week, are free to eligible Medicaid recipients and start at $75 a day for private payers.
An active social life brings huge health benefits to seniors, said Leila Abedi, a nurse practitioner who started the center with her husband and who walks around the facility like a mother hen in a white coat.
“You really have to be able to connect with someone,” said Abedi, whose office shelves held poetry books by Iran’s Hafez and Omar Khayyam, alongside citizenship booklets. “If you don’t speak their language, how can you connect?”
Pari Sadoughi, 72, a retired tailor with bronze-colored hair, said she felt lonely before she started coming. “I didn’t know a single Iranian; all the people in my building are American or Italian,” she said. Looking around at the table of Iranian women who had spent the morning shopping together, she said, “We don’t feel like strangers here.”
As a bingo game got underway, Ameri and Rahro sat in a far corner of the lunch room, recounting tales of their colorful headmaster and his wives.
“He really loved his donkey, and every day it was the turn of one of the students to go early to his house and walk behind and use a stick to prod the donkey to go faster,” said Ameri, adding that the eldest wife often sat in a place of honor on the donkey behind her husband. Rahro grinned in recognition as Ameri continued.
“Every day the headmaster would kiss the donkey on the forehead. One day the donkey was sick and they took it to a famous doctor, who was also a doctor to the shahs. The doctor said the donkey had a fever and prescribed some medicine . . . I never knew the donkey’s name, I don’t know if it was a Miss or a Mrs. — but I bet it was a Mrs.”
Beside him, Rahro buried his face in one hand, giggling like a schoolboy.