Seniors Live, Thrive at St. Mary’s Low-Cost Homes

Residents at St. Mary's Gardens make frequent walking trips back and forth to the Chinatown markets nearby. Parties, dances, and exercise classes also keep seniors active at the community near Oakland's Old City. By Diana Alonzo.
Residents at St. Mary's Gardens make frequent walking trips back and forth to the Chinatown markets nearby. Parties, dances, and exercise classes also keep seniors active at the facility west of Oakland's Old City. By Diana Alonzo.

By Diana Alonzo

OAKLAND, CA – After a stroke in 2002 left Myra Chang unable to walk, she needed a home that was affordable and handicap-accessible. Chang, a San Francisco native, signed up for an apartment at St. Mary’s Gardens, a West Oakland development where seniors receive affordable and quality housing. Chang was put on a two-year waiting list.

“The wait was worth it,” she said. “I moved all the way from San Francisco to Oakland because it was such a good opportunity.”

Today, 75-year-old Chang enjoys the quiet, long hallways where she’s learning how to walk again. There’s a flower garden that Chang visits every day, waiting for the roses to bloom.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church opened the facility two decades ago because it recognized a lack of affordable housing for low income seniors. Today, it’s run by Christian Church Homes, a national non-profit that provides affordable housing.  St. Mary’s Gardens also gets support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Priscilla Gojocco is an 85-year-old Philippines native who finds comfort in her one bedroom suite. She has filled it with art, wall decorations, and two pianos she loves to play.  She prepares her own meals in her kitchenette and she writes poetry.  She has lived at St. Mary’s for 20 years. “I enjoy the organization of the staff and the peace and quiet,” she said.

Almost all of the seniors are Asian, and like Gojocco, they travel to their home countries at least once a year to visit their families. Residents who can’t make those long trips find some of the comforts of home in nearby Chinatown’s markets and restaurants. Seniors shop there regularly, and are often seen returning through St. Mary’s front doors with bags full of fresh produce.

St. Mary’s has more than 130 residents, attended by just a dozen regular staff members. Mary Francis Giammona is St. Mary’s administrator. She came to the job last December with more twenty years of experience in senior care. “I want to make St. Mary’s an active force in the community for good,” Giammona said.

Location is on her side. The facility is surrounded by two other senior housing facilities, as well as several schools and churches. To make St. Mary’s more visible to its neighbors, Giammona has opened St. Mary’s doors to the public. Children gather in the dining room after school to practice circus acts for the Prescott Elementary circus theater program.  Myra Chang thinks it’s important to keep the seniors in touch with the neighborhood because it prevents isolation.

85-year-old Priscilla Gojocco has an apartment at St. Mary's, where she plays two pianos, cooks, and writes poetry. As much as the services, Gojocco enjoys "the peace and quiet" she finds at the facility. By Diana Alonzo.

One of the toughest jobs at St. Mary’s is connecting residents with Social Security, Medicare, health insurance, and other programs. Calvie Yeung is the social services coordinator. She helps residents wade through the paperwork and application processes seniors often find difficult. Yeung is fluent in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin – a skill set perfect for her work at St. Mary’s.

“Yeung is wonderful,” Chang said, grateful that Yeung helps her read Mandarin because “the characters are too small and too many to understand without help.” Yeung also gives Chang advice on personal problems. “My favorite part about working here,” Yeung said, “is helping the seniors get the help they need.”

Half of St. Mary’s seniors – including Chang and Gojocco – receive In Home Support Services. The state program provides assistants to help seniors with their daily activities and chores. Chang says she really appreciates the IHSS aids who come to clean, bathe and dress her, and help with her housework.

The staff and seniors work together to make St. Mary’s fun. They organize bingo, dances, shopping trips to Alameda, movies, Chinese karaoke, and art classes. From her wheel chair, Chang pointed to a glass case filled with paper swans and vases. “I used to be able to make those,” Chang said of the intricate origami art displayed in the lobby. “But it’s too difficult now. My fingers wont let me.” Instead, Chang teaches Chinese knotting – just one way she stays tied to her St. Mary’s family.

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