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Going back to their roots at Nikkei Senior Gardens

At the Arleta facility, which caters to Japanese American retirees, residents can mix, mingle and tend their own gardens. The center is one of many that caters to niche communities, from gays to alum to artists.

February 20, 2010|Rosemary McClure

"There's always been a component of groups looking out for their own," says Jon Pynoos, professor of gerontology, policy and planning at USC's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center. "We're seeing more of it now, both ethnically based and affinity-based."

At Nikkei, the impetus was the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, which had had the housing development on its drawing boards for a decade.

Toji Hashimoto, a member of the center, had disliked seeing how his relatives fared in a traditional convalescent hospital.

"It was depressing," he says. "It just seemed like there should be a better way."

Hashimoto had land, so he went to the board and proposed a senior housing complex. Getting the funding took time, but the result was worth it.

"I wouldn't mind living here myself," says Hashimoto, 66. "It's great for these guys and ladies. They don't have to cook anymore. They meet new people."

Some visitors are surprised that Nikkei Senior Gardens was built by and for Japanese Americans, director Allan Slight says.

"They say, ‘I thought the Japanese took care of their own, that they kept their elders at home,' " Slight says. "That's changed dramatically. All the children work. They can't stay home and take care of their parents."

Nor do elders want them to, says USC professor Pynoos, who has studied senior housing in Japan.

"Both in the U.S. and in Japan, the elders say, ‘I don't want to be a burden to my children. I want them to have their own lives.' "

When elders opt to move into senior housing, they sometimes find that the choice is more beneficial than either parent or child imagined, he says.

"They meet new people and make new friends," Pynoos says. "People who were once isolated and depressed become engaged in life again."

Nikkei Senior Gardens was designed to encourage mixing and mingling. Japanese American designer Toyo Okamoto says the cultural center gave him a free hand "but asked me to keep traditional Japanese architecture in mind and minimize the feeling of walls." The result is an open and airy design with a central courtyard that features an inviting Japanese garden. An inside solarium beckons residents and guests alike.

The two-story complex has studio and one-bedroom units ranging from $2,800 to $3,600 a month, including three meals a day, 24-hour staff, communal living areas, activities and housekeeping.

"Japanese traditionally enjoy working the soil and planting gardens, which is why the complex has the communal gardens and orchard," Okamoto says.

The garden plot caught Doi's eye when he and his wife, Sachie, thought about moving in. As members of the Japanese American Cultural Center, they had watched the complex take shape. Doi, a retired aerospace R&D director, liked the independence of living in his own home, but when Sachie became ill, they took the plunge.

"It's a golden place," he says. "You're among your own people. We have the same background, the same culture; it's easy to blend in."

Doi didn't give his three children a vote in the matter.

"We never asked them what we should do," he says. "We didn't want them to make a decision for us. They have their own lives to lead. Besides, if you let your child take charge, you've lost your independence."

Sachie died of cancer in November. Doi thinks about moving out of Nikkei. He's more active than many of the residents, and he no longer needs the staff assistance. But for now he's staying put. And planning his spring garden. This year, he thinks he'll plant some flowers and not as many vegetables.

"Maybe some petunias and roses — something that will make the garden nice and beautiful," he says. "Something that will last year after year."

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