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Culturally based senior centers are a place to forge friendships

From left, Thien Luu, Bay Nguyen, and Duyen Tran engage in a friendly card game at Dorchester’s Kit Clark Senior Center.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

From left, Thien Luu, Bay Nguyen, and Duyen Tran engage in a friendly card game at Dorchester’s Kit Clark Senior Center.

Before Hang Trinh began coming to the senior center near the train tracks in Fields Corner, no one knew the darkness that hid behind her eyes.

She had been a wife of a Navy officer in Vietnam who was captured in the mid-1970s, jailed, and shot to death while imprisoned. Trinh never recovered, even as decades passed and she began a new life in Dorchester.

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“I was really, really sad,’’ Trinh, 67, said recently through a translator. “I tried suicide twice.”

It was here behind the large, airy windows at Kit Clark Senior Center that some of her pain began to subside. Here she got medical care, saw a psychiatrist, and joined a mental health group. And here she got something else, something equally important in her healing — friendship from the other women from Vietnam who also gathered at the center.

Across Boston, facilities serving seniors offer more than convenient locations for seniors needing blood pressure checks and other medical care. These centers offer healing of a different kind, forged in friendships, laughter, card games, and dances.

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“This is about connections,’’ says Leanne Bragdon, vice president for senior services at Kit Clark. “We have such a diverse community. This is a place for people to gather.”

More than 88,000 Boston residents are age 60 and older, and one-third of them were born in another country, according to city and census data. Many of the city’s older immigrants hail from Latin America and other places including Haiti, Vietnam, and Cape Verde.

In plush sofas or around wide open tables, they gather, some balancing on canes, others in wheelchairs. Women with their knitting needles make colorful blankets and weave tales of their lives. The men, some in neat neckties, play cards or dominoes or hang out with other men from their homelands.

At the Cape Verdean Adult Day Care Health Center in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner, a pastor delivers a morning sermon after playing the accordion. When the sermon ends, Cape Verdean Bossa Nova begins to play. A frail-looking woman suddenly stands upright, hoisting a cane in the air, extending it in front of her and resting the bottom on a pole a few feet away.

It’s limbo time.

Another woman, carrying a small empty basket atop her head, sways, hips bouncing as she crosses under the limbo line.

The Centro d’ Saude Cabo Verdeano — its Cape Verdean name — has another location in Brockton. The Dorchester site, open every day, serves seniors in Cambridge, Quincy, Milton, Somerville, and Medford. The staff transports clients to medical appointments and provides food from their homeland. Nonclients are also welcome.

“This is not just about medical care or getting food,’’ says Iracema Tavares, program director of the Cape Verdean center. “These seniors come to meet people. It’s about socialization for some of them.”

That is what draws 88-year-old Semao Gomes to the center. While his wife is a client there, he is not. And every morning he arrives dressed in crisp slacks, tie, hat, and shiny black shoes. He finds a place at a small card table in the center of the room, and sits in the same spot — in the chair on the right. He and a group of seniors play a card game called Beska into the afternoon.

“I win most of the games,’’ says Gomes. “But not all of the time.”

Inside the kitchen, Alezibeth Medina, a 77-year-old from Dorchester, finishes up after washing piles of dishes. A former factory worker, she raised her children by herself after her husband died. Retired from the sewing factories where she worked long hours, and with her children gone from home, she comes to the center to volunteer.

“I do everything here — cook, clean, feed people,’’ she says one day in halting English. “I feel so good doing it. I feel alive. If don’t do it, I’d be home every single day. I’d be depressed. That’s why I come here.”

Back at the Kit Clark Center, Lien Ong gathers with her friends as she works on a large blue, red, and green blanket. Her goal is to knit one for each of her three grandchildren. “So they remember me,’’ she says through a translator.

Every day as the center opens, Ong, 70, arrives and sits at the same table with her friends, including Quyt Hoang, 74, Hoa Hang, 71, and Ba Dang, 71, and eight other women. They come to see a doctor, dance, or talk. Mostly they talk.

“I come here for the fun,’’ says Ong. “I also share problems with my closest friends.”

From left, Du Nguyen, Phai Nguyen, and Anh Nguyen focus their attention on a game of bingo.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

From left, Du Nguyen, Phai Nguyen, and Anh Nguyen focus their attention on a game of bingo.

Sometimes she thinks of family members still in Vietnam and of her old village on the border of the old Saigon. The women help her talk it through. They too have haunting memories of their homelands. They too are trying to get on with their lives. Now they have company and a place close to home.

“Without this center, I would be staying home,’’ says Hoang. “And I would be lonely.”

On April 30 — the date that Saigon fell 39 years ago — Trinh says she became sad again. But she was grateful for friends like Huong Le, a 73-year-old from Dorchester whose husband was also captured during the Vietnam War.

Their friendship has deepened through the years, with Le helping her friend smile and talk through some of the pain.

“We try to help each other,” Le says. “This center, it is like family.”

Meghan E. Irons is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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