NEW YORK—Mrs. Jin speaks Cantonese and Taishanese, lives on the third floor of a nondescript Chinatown apartment, and pays attention to good hospitality.
In 1971 she immigrated from Hong Kong to join her husband in the United States, and now gets daily visits from family members and health care workers who make sure she is doing alright. Twice a week her life lights up when Ms. Su Yinyang, her nurse, pops in for a visit.
A native of Guangdong Province, Mrs. Jin spent the first 50 years of her life in China, where she worked in the countryside, crouching around, harvesting rice. She spent her second 50 years here in the United States with her family, and is now 102 years old.
Mrs. Jin has five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Robert, her grandson who keeps a look out for her, is 51 years old. They speak in Taishanese together.
Mrs. Jin still has some of the thrift that would have kept her in good stead in the Chinese countryside. She had squirreled away a napkin from a local restaurant under one of the seat cushions near her bed, for example, and unfurled it while being interviewed.
"That’s a very good tissue," she said, before blowing her nose.
As a demonstration of ability, determination, or independence, Mrs. Jin most days traipses down the three flights of stairs from her apartment to the street. It only takes five minutes according to Su, the nurse.
Once a week Mrs. Jin visits the local senior center to stay in touch with the community and play an occasional game of Majong. She goes out to eat and helps to buy things that the home helper will later cook for her, under Mrs. Jin's close watch. Mrs. Jin is a quick thinker, and not shy of explaining how the food should be cooked, says the home helper, who comes every weekday and used to work in a factory in Guangdong making vinyl for chairs.
Mrs. Jin has been through her share of difficulty. Soon after arriving in the United States, her husband died. Twenty years later her son, whom her life was then centered around, also died unexpectedly.
The second death was a severe blow, and Mrs. Jin, then in her 80s, was mired in depression. Years passed and her daughter-in-law and son's widower, who she now lives with in Chinatown, decided to give the Visiting Nurse Service of New York a call, and enrolled her in the "VNS CHOICE" program, which handles long-term care for elderly people who want to stay at home.
The phone call was the first step in Mrs. Jin's rejuvenation. Su Yinyang was a key participant.
Also hailing from Guangdong, Su speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, operates a wiz-bang computer, and comes in a couple of times a week to check in on Mrs. Jin. She coordinates doctor visits, organizes medication, and makes sure all the pieces of care are under control.
But all of these efforts are to care for Mrs. Jin's physical needs; Su’s role is also to make sure that Mrs. Jin is still engaged, active, and sharp. She's the oldest of the 33 patients whom Su juggles—the average age being 80—but takes among the least amount of medication (five kinds rather than 20) and exhibits a great and feisty spirit.
"We want them to be in the community as long as possible,” Su said. “We hope we can help them get information about health, make sure they go to the doctor if there's a problem, help them stay independent as much as possible."
"She harvested rice in China, working very, very hard. She came here, and now her grandson takes care of her. She hasn't had to work since coming here. … I realize she appreciates this service."
As the largest nonprofit health care provider in the country, the Visiting Nurse Service employs 13,300 people who speak 50 different languages, and has 2,740 registered nurses and 30,000 patients on its books. The organization racked up 2.5 million home visits in 2008.
"The schedule is flexible. I also get to visit people, one after another," Su said of her job. "I really like this. I feel like the old ones think their children have already moved out, and they feel lonely. When they see us, they're very happy. They're moved that we come to help, saying, 'come back, come back.'"
Both the home health aide and Su say Mrs. Jin is still sharp and bright. Enough, at least, to realize when she's being talked about in English—a language she's never learned—and head the conversation off by passing around warm cream tarts. “I’m very independent," she said in sing-song Cantonese. "I don’t need more hours of home help!"
"The government has taken very good care of me," Mrs. Jin said through Su. "I have every kind of benefit."
Mrs. Jin's family also appreciates it. Her grandson Robert says it's allowed her to remain independent over the years. "They take her shopping, take her to the cinema, and allow her to live by herself," he said. Otherwise, "She would have to be institutionalized. … That's a nursing home."
Mrs. Jin and the nurse have also struck a lasting bond. "I feel like she is my grandmother," Su said. "It's like being part of the family."