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Walking San José: A Conversation with Vietnamese Elders by Theresa Do

July 15th, 2020

Back in February, I was walking to a local Tết Festival when I noticed an older adult standing at the corner of a busy intersection who seemed lost. As I approached the crosswalk, he motioned me over and asked if I was going to cross. He quickly explained that he had immigrated to San José from Việt Nam three months ago, and had never crossed a signalized intersection on his own. 

“So I push this button and just wait for the white figure to appear? How much time do I get? What does the red hand mean?” 

As we walked together, I explained how to safely cross the street and he confided how scared he was to walk because of the speed of drivers. 

“It’s so different from home where traffic flows around you.” 

Before this chance encounter, I had been thinking about how different it is to cross a street in San José than in Hà Nội (pictured above), particularly for newly arrived immigrants and the elderly. And now, as we continue to shelter-in-place, I worry about the lack of safety nets in place to meet the needs of older adults who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Back in February, I wanted to hear from my Vietnamese elders about how they were getting around the City and how the physical layout influences their walking habits. So I reached out to Hoang, the Vietnamese American Cultural Center (VACC) Senior Recreation Leader, who helped me facilitate a discussion with a group of 25 older Vietnamese adults. Hoang began the conversation by sharing an experience where he fell while walking because a tree had over sprouted and cracked the sidewalk. His story struck a chord with the elders and immediately lit the room up in conversation—mostly of how frustrated they were with San José’s sidewalk repair ordinance, which places the responsibility of fixing sidewalks on property owners. 

“Do you all remember Chị Han? The City expected her, as the homeowner, to fix the sidewalk in front of her house. When she complained that the sidewalk is a public space, they added that she needed to pay for a permit and hire a contractor to fix the sidewalk!” 

Without missing a beat, several others cried out, “That’s ridiculous! That’s the city’s responsibility.”  

Then, the conversation shifted to how dangerous it is to walk on certain streets, such as Senter Road, a Vision Zero priority safety corridor located in the Little Saigon neighborhood. One elder brought up the 85-year-old Vietnamese woman who was killed last December while crossing Senter Road. She suggested that while she doesn’t know the solution to stopping these fatalities, the City needs to do something to keep people safer. 

Before our conversation ended, I wanted to lighten the mood by asking one last question: what encourages you to walk? There was a brief moment of silence before the room exploded in chatter. 

“I don’t like to walk!” 

“Sức khỏe! Health. I walk for my health.” 

As Hoang asked for final comments, one elder simply stated, “If it was safer, then more people would walk; if more people are walking, then it would feel safer.” 

While so much has changed since that conversation we had in February, the valid concerns these elders shared who scoffed at the idea of walking around in their own city still resonates. The struggles to walk in their communities have worsened since COVID-19 because older adults are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and are also more likely to be socially and physically isolated. Many senior wellness programs have been cancelled and community centers are closed throughout the City. Older adults still need to get to medical appointments and grocery stores, but are struggling because bus and light rail service has been reduced and other services, including parks, are limited. And as most of our lives shift online, many older adults do not have access to the necessary devices or have support to teach them to use online tools like Zoom. 

Now, the state is beginning to reopen without a robust plan for where older adults fit into re-entry, and what safety measures will be enacted to protect 1.2 million older Californians as they transition out of shelter-in-place. The harsh reality is that older adults will not be able to go back to “normal” at the same pace as healthy, able-bodied, young people. While Governor Newsom and the state’s Department of Aging have introduced harm reduction measures such as Friendship Line California and Social Bridging Project, we need long-term planning around the explicit needs of older adults in a world that will endure long-term impacts from COVID-19. 

Without guidelines or contingencies for how older adults should safely transition out of shelter-in-place, our older population will continue to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of COVID-19, especially those who are food insecure, low-income, and/or experiencing houselessness. The state has postponed planning of the California Master Plan for Aging, but there is an immediate need for discussion on the impacts of COVID-19 on our aging population and how to effectively address this public health concern. 

Since so many resources are no longer options for seniors, it’s important that we all continue to check-in with the older adults in our lives, express support, and raise awareness of programs that are available. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website provides guidance for older adults, with information available in multiple languages, and AARP outlines advice for specific, daily scenarios given by top infectious disease experts. In San José, the Senior Nutrition Program has transitioned to providing boxed meals to-go at most locations and San José Public Library’s (SJPL) Family Learning Center (FLC) Coordinators have created the Community Connection Hour, a virtual community chat-room on Thursdays at 1 p.m. where residents can ask questions in English, Spanish, or Vietnamese and get reliable information in a safe, secure space. Lastly, at Walk San José, we’re working with the San José Department of Transportation on adapting our Senior Pedestrian Safety outreach series into an online format to address safe walking tips during this pandemic. 

In these uncertain times, we need to strengthen our commitment to creating safe, healthy, walkable communities. We need streets and public spaces that work for everyone, that are designed with people at the forefront as more are out walking and biking. People of all races, ages, identities, and abilities deserve to live in a community that is safe, healthy, and welcoming. As the elders said, we need to continue to demand more of our elected officials and co-create a future where everyone feels safe and comfortable moving under their own power.

To attend a webinar on older adult safe walking practices, please check out our Facebook Page with event information.  

If you’re interested in learning more about our work or getting involved with Vision Zero, please contact me at theresa@calwalks.org.

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