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Im Ja Choi

Founder and CEO, Penn Asian Senior Services

In 2005, I founded Penn Asian Senior Services (PASSi), the first home care agency in the greater Philadelphia region to serve limited-English proficient, Asian aging adults and seniors. Since then, we’ve gone from serving 28 home care clients to serving 941 participants in our programs in 2018. PASSi has also hired almost 600 home health aides and staff members, who speak 21 languages.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Asian American seniors are a highly underserved group, in large part due to a lack of resources and support for those with language and cultural barriers. More than four out of five of the 50,000 Asians aged 55 and older in the Philadelphia area have limited English proficiency — higher than any other ethnic group. Like me, many of my immigrant peers have struggled with caring for their English-limited parents. I knew that if these seniors could receive help from those who spoke their language, they could age comfortably at home.

The moment that sparked my passion

In 1978, I brought my recently widowed mother from South Korea to live with my family in the United States. In 2002, at age 85, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. After surgery, she couldn’t eat much of anything for months. That’s how much she disliked Western food! She was down to 62 pounds when the hospital wanted to send her to a nursing home. I knew she wouldn’t eat their food either, so I brought her home. I gave her the comfort of familiar food — jook, sam gae tang, kimchi — even though she couldn’t swallow much of it.

I abandoned everything I was doing and became her full-time caregiver. It was so difficult — she was in critical condition. I looked for help, but I couldn’t find a Korean-speaking home health aide in the entire Philadelphia region, and there was no home care agency with bilingual providers. It took me seven months to finally find someone, a pastor’s wife who had relocated from Connecticut.

People from my church started asking me how they could find someone like her. I realized the urgent need and my obligation to help.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

When I decided to create PASSi, I didn’t know anything about governmental or home care systems. However, I was able to capitalize on relationships I had made during my 20-year career in real estate and two decades of volunteer work. My education in organizational dynamics taught me how to create a nonprofit and write grant proposals, and more important, to be persistent. It wasn’t for me, it was for my people — that belief kept me going. When you give yourself to a good cause, people are willing to help.

Why my approach is unique

Asian immigrant seniors want to age in their homes and their communities, but before PASSi they didn’t have culturally and linguistically appropriate resources and services. Now they do. PASSi provides home care service that adapts clients’ specific needs including their ethnic meals and familiar activities like tai chi and origami, as well as respite for family caregivers; a beautiful new community center to address social isolation and to provide a place to swim and exercise; and vocational training to supply qualified bilingual workers. In the future, I hope to add a primary care health center for senior residents in PASSi’s neighborhood.