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AAPI Older Adults Find Friendship, Connections at Community Centers

As the Asian population grows, culturally tailored services are expanding

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Saroj and Shantilal Topiwala are like many aging South Asian parents who have made a home in the United States. 

Both in their 70s, the couple settled with their adult son and his family in a Chicago suburb. During the day, when their son and daughter-in-law left for work and their grandchildren headed to school, the Topiwalas were on their own without much to do. They couldn’t wander down a street in their native India and chat with a neighbor or shopkeeper. 

Instead they spent most of their days sitting on the couch. “It was a boring life at home,” says Saroj, 71. “I wasn’t happy.”

That’s a familiar story to Roshita Pandey, grants manager at Universal Metro Asian Services (UMAS), a nonprofit organization that operates six adult daycare centers throughout the Chicago area.

“In India, you’re on the street and see 10 people, and you stand on the street and talk to them for half an hour, one hour and your social needs are met,” says Pandey, also grants manager for UMAS’ sister organization, Metropolitan Asian Family Services. “You can’t do that here. It's a very different setup, different protocols, different social norms here that you need to follow. So it adds to their isolation.”

UMAS is among a wave of organizations across the country that address the needs of aging members of the increasing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population in America. These organizations often offer services in someone’s native language — like Korean, Hindi or Japanese — as well as food or music that evoke the dishes and sounds of childhood in their native country.

The Topiwalas learned about UMAS from a relative, and for the past 11 years a van emblazoned with the orange, green and white colors of the Indian flag transport Saroj and her husband to the center multiple times a week. There they take computer and yoga classes, play memory games, practice English and sing Bollywood songs.

On a recent Wednesday Saroj was in a large room with dozens of other older adults clapping her hands as a performer sang in Hindi. A silver shrine to Krishna stands in the corner. She had just shared a lunch of bhindi masala and basmati rice while chatting in Hindi and Gujarati with her friends. “I come here,” Saroj says, “and I have a new life.”

Santosh Kumar says she founded UMAS in 1992 to help South Asian older adults like the Topiwalas because “there was so much suffering here after traveling 10,000 miles from their country. The [aging] parents are completely lost because there is nobody for them — no support system.”

An attorney, Kumar, 73, noticed particular gaps in language and food when assisting her legal clients. So she focuses on hiring staff who can form connections with older immigrants based on “language, culture and food — these three thing things bind them."

shantilal and saroj topiwala

Courtesy Erin Chan Ding

Shantilal and Saroj Topiwala (left to right)

Filling a growing need

The need for culturally integrated care for AAPI older adults ​​has grown as Asian Americans continue to be the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, with its population increasing by 81 percent between 2000 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. Pew also projects the total U.S. Asian American population will surpass 35 million by 2060 — nearly double the number in 2019.

And according to the most recent Profile of Asian Americans Age 65 and Older, released in 2020 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the population of Asian Americans 65-plus is expected to approach 8 million people by 2060, up from about 2.5 million in 2019.

Vaughn Villaverde, director of advocacy at Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), which was started by Asian Americans in San Jose, California, in 1973 to help resettle Vietnamese refugees, says the organization intentionally hires multilingual staff.

He says older adults and families see that and say, “‘Oh, I don’t have to do so much explaining because there’s someone who looks like me and speaks my language and is from my culture.’ I think that cultural connection, and that language connection, really does help skip a few steps in terms of moving forward and connecting folks with what they need.”

AACI focuses on health and wellness and now serves 750 older adults, 96 percent of whom are Asian. As part of its behavioral health program, the organization has conducted an Elder Storytelling Project for the past nine years with six bilingual staff who speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese.  Every week, they record the experiences of older adults, some of whom have been through traumatic experiences and can benefit from talking about them in culturally sensitive ways.

“We’ve found that our older adult patients aren’t necessarily ready or in the mindset to engage in traditional behavioral services, like group and individual therapy,” Villaverde says. (Asian Americans represent the racial group least likely to seek out mental health services, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.) “So rather than engage them in a really direct, intensive behavioral health service, we ask them to just tell a story: Tell us a story about your past. In doing that, it kind of helps unlock some of those memories.”


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'Here, everything started again'              

As far back as 1987, a group of Korean Americans in Chicago became concerned about the welfare of aging Koreans, many living in large apartment buildings who had few people looking in on them. They started the Korean American Senior Center, which now provides home care as well as wellness, health and tutoring services.

Now called the the Hanul Family Alliance (Hanul means “family” in Korean), the center staff prepares bulgogi and rice, communicates in Korean and shows respect by connecting through such traditional nonverbal cues as bowing.

Irene Jisun Sohn, executive director of Hanul, says these connections help ease the mindset shift of depending on help outside services for caregiving.

“We are all forced to make the transition of, ‘OK, no longer is it our first child or our first daughter or son who can take care of our elderly,’” Sohn says. “We need to go outside of our family members, and that is actually better than having them be alone all the time at home.”

For the Topiwalas, seeking that outside care has helped them come into their own. At the center, Saroj, dressed in a salwar kameez the color of crimson and jade, smiles and sings before watching a friend blow out candles for her 86th birthday.

“A long time ago, I was dancing, and then, everything stopped,” Saroj says. “Here, everything started again: exercise, programs and nice food. I learned karaoke. I am now young!”

Erin Chan Ding is a contributing writer who covers health, parenting, fitness, technology, gender and race. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. She co-directs the national Freelance Affinity Group of the Asian American Journalists Association and is a former staff writer for the Detroit Free Press.

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