Eyes closed in concentration, Yuriko Ueda stretched her right hand above her head, swung her left hand toward the ground and pointed her chin at the sky.
Holding that stance, Ueda let a wave of orchestral music wash over her.
“Breathe in and out,” exercise instructor Lily Singh said. “Long and easy.”
When the music stopped, Ueda slowly opened her eyes … and sat down on a chair in her dining room at home. She waved to an iPad perched on the table.
“Hi, Yuriko!” Singh said, waving back to Ueda and a dozen other seniors in the EnhanceFitness class that she leads over Zoom for Asian Counseling and Referral Service, or ACRS.
Based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, ACRS is one of 13 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
Before the pandemic, the organization’s on-site “Club Bamboo” program gave older adults an upbeat place to chat, dance and eat lunches with Asian and Pacific Islander dishes every weekday, while steering them toward other ACRS offerings, such as housing assistance, mental health counseling and citizenship courses. Ueda participated.
But many in-person programs in the Seattle area, including Club Bamboo, have been suspended since COVID-19 emerged almost two years ago, leaving seniors like Ueda, a 75-year-old immigrant from Japan, at risk of becoming physically inactive and socially isolated.
For weeks, Ueda saw almost no one other than her husband. She couldn’t play pickleball anymore. At one point, she had trouble gardening.
For the first time in her life, “I could not even squat,” or crouch down, she said, describing that as a shock. “I could not bring myself back up.”
Then, about eight months ago, Ueda heard something exciting: Club Bamboo would be moving online.
Equipped by ACRS with tablets, laptops and digital training (including how to share emojis), Ueda and more than 60 other older adults now exercise, meditate and sing karaoke together over Zoom. Because online computing is referred to as “the cloud,” they call the virtual program “Cloud Bamboo.”
“We were brainstorming ideas and someone suggested Cloud Bamboo — Club Bamboo in a virtual setting,” said Miguel Saldin, a manager at ACRS. “We thought that sounded amazing.”
Loneliness can carry short- and long-term impacts, putting people of all ages at greater risk for certain illnesses and exacerbating or leading to depression.
Social isolation can even increase the risk of dying early, according to some research. Seniors can be particularly vulnerable, due to circumstances like living alone, chronic illnesses and hearing loss, with older adults who are immigrants sometimes facing extra challenges.
In a King County survey conducted in mid-2020, about 12% of respondents over 50 years old reported feeling down or hopeless most days since the pandemic began, while 14% reported having little interest or pleasure doing things and 12% reported trouble getting medication.
In a national survey conducted by the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation in mid-2020, 40% of respondents over 50 reported feeling isolated and 33% said they had gone at least a month without interacting with people outside their household and workplace.
In pre-pandemic times, Club Bamboo was a social hub for many seniors, and the organization used the program’s lively lunches “as a gateway” to connect older adults with holistic care, Saldin said.
Japanese American seniors can be particularly reluctant to seek out assistance, said Rina Adams, an ACRS case worker who focuses on that population and who at one point connected Ueda with a coronavirus test.
“For some people, it’s just hard to imagine having someone help them, because they’ve been so independent for 70, 80 years,” Adams said.
Though Ueda was introduced to ACRS through Club Bamboo, having heard about the program’s inexpensive lunches from a friend, she also received citizenship help from the organization last year. For decades, a green card and marriage to a U.S. citizen had seemed OK; then President Donald Trump came along, Ueda said.
“He was talking about immigration, this and that,” during his 2020 reelection campaign, she recalled. “So I said, ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen with Trump. I need to become an American citizen.'”
ACRS helped Ueda apply. “They put everything in the computer,” she said. When she hadn’t heard back from the government, about 10 months later, the organization checked on her case.
“I’m a citizen now,” said Ueda, who keeps a small American flag from her naturalization celebration on her dining room wall.
These days, Ueda lives for Cloud Bamboo, attending the EnhanceFitness class two or three times a week.
Singh leads her class from a windowless room in the basement of the ACRS headquarters building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. She mixes stretching with dance moves, aerobics and motions that resemble aspects of yoga and tai chi. The soundtrack includes new-age music and soul standards.
ACRS assistant Enoch Wong ran the show on a recent Wednesday, sitting behind a computer and displaying the Zoom call on a projector screen so that Singh could see and call out to the participants by name.
Wong, along with other ACRS employees and volunteers, spent more than 100 hours last year training the seniors to use tablets, laptops and Zoom, which many of them had never used before.
Muting was an important skill to learn in the initial sessions, because “some people had their noise on,” which was annoying, Ueda said, laughing. The participants sign in from homes and apartments all over the Seattle area. They range in age from 63 to 83.
The virtual setting detracts from the experience somewhat. There are no hugs, for example. Yet Zoom can be convenient, especially for older adults who live far from ACRS and those with mobility challenges.
The organization may keep the option available even when in-person activities resume, Saldin said. Instructors and participants have come up with ways to interact online.
“We’re starting to give them tech tips at the end of class,” said Francie Wong, who coordinates the classes for seniors at ACRS. “We also celebrate their birthdays each month. They unmute themselves and sing together.”
Besides EnhanceFitness, Cloud Bamboo’s offerings currently include a weekly Matter of Balance fall-prevention workshop in English and Vietnamese, a semiweekly yoga/meditation class in English and Mandarin, and a weekly karaoke session for Vietnamese speakers.
Some results can be measured. When Cloud Bamboo’s fitness class launched in April, ACRS had 19 participants stand up (and sit down) as many times as they could in 30 seconds. They averaged about 11 movements. Tested again in August, they averaged almost 13. The average number of arm curls they could do in 30 seconds also increased, from 13 to almost 16.
Other results are less tangible, like the pleasure Ueda gets from gardening, now that she can stretch, bend and squat with relative ease again.
She talks about ACRS “everywhere I go,” with a pitch that’s short and sweet: “If you need help, it’s there.”