Asian Americans are a very diverse group. According to the 1980 census, an Asian American elder is described as an older person (age 60 and over) who is Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or Pacific Islander which includes Guamanians, Hawaiians, and Samoans. Asian Americans have come to the United States from over 20 countries, represent more than 60 different ethnicities, and speak a multitude of languages (Asian American Health Forum, 1990). A majority of older Asian Americans have either immigrated to the United States as migrant workers or were invited by their children who previously immigrated to the United States with an “American Dream.”
The number of Asian American older adults is predicted to increase. For example, in 1990, 6% of the Asian and Pacific Islander population in America was 65 or older. By 2050, Asian American older adults will constitute 16% of the persons 65 or older in America (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993). Despite their large numbers, 60% of Asian American older adults live either California or Hawaii. In contrast, they constitute the smallest population in Virginia and Louisiana (3.1% and 3.7% respectively) (Kim, 1983).
Asian Americans are frequently stereotyped as the “silent minority,” the “invisible minority,” or the “quiet Americans” and assumed to take care of themselves. These stereotypic labels lead to assumptions among social workers and other social service providers that Asians are cared by their families and their communities and therefore, do not require extensive social services. These inaccurate assumptions can result in older Asian Americans not receiving the appropriate assistance or support they require.
Most Asian American older adults live in segregated areas in big cities, such as Chinatown, Koreatown, or Little Tokyo. Reasons for living in these ethnic communities include feeling a sense of familiarity and security in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. Additionally, these “ethnic enclaves,” as they are frequently called, provide an escape from discrimination and other forms of oppression that result from being of minority status.
Traditionally, the Asian family is an extended, close-knit social unit in which children take care of their aging parents emotionally and financially. These traditions lead social workers to believe that filial obligation is still practiced by Asian family members in America. As the result of Western culture, particularly the emphasis on independence and geographical mobility, many older adults have experienced rejection by their Americanized children. Consequently, many elders live alone and depend more on friends and neighbors for support than adult children.
What Can Be Done
Most Asian Americans feel ashamed to seek help from individuals other than family members and are reluctant to reveal their needs. As a result, older Asian Americans in need of assistance do not seek physical or psychological services. There are several reasons why:
- Availability or difficulty with speaking the English language
- Belief caregiving is the responsibility of the family
- Distrust of social service programs and providers
- Lack of awareness of available services in their area
- Lack of financial resources (e.g., health insurance)
- Difficulty in accessing services due to transportation barriers
What can we do to reach out to Asian American Elders?
- Promote community education and understanding of the Asian culture through education programs at local schools, libraries, and churches.
- Design and implement culturally appropriate programs, for example: health prevention and awareness programs that recognize and value the use of alternative medicines; senior centers that emphasize Asian holidays and traditions; and provide transportation for seniors to attend community events.
- Provide translators (e.g., their children or grandchildren, students who study abroad in the United States) to encourage and enable communication with social service providers.
- Encourage communities to adopt culturally sensitive nutrition services, such as meals on a wheels or congregate meal sites near ethnic communities.
- Develop intergenerational programs that encourage Americanized Asian children and Asian American grandparents to interact and communicate.
Asian American older adults have received very little attention from researchers despite the fact they are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Understanding and respecting the cultural differences and providing culturally appropriate programs would help to reach currently isolated and disadvantaged Asian American older adults.