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A Seat at the Table
posted 05.04.2015

By Amy Phillips

Spring is in full swing and the Aging Network has all kinds of activities planned for Older Americans Month. But many communities across the country are preparing to celebrate May from a completely different angle, with a hula class at a library, street festivals, documentary screenings, an ukulele performance at a military base, and even a White House summit because May is also Asian-Pacific American Heritage month. The intersection of these celebrations makes May the perfect time to highlight a population that often struggles to be seen and heard: Asian American and Asian immigrant seniors.

Asian American Seniors Face Barriers, Many Unintended

A few years ago, in an area of Los Angeles that is home to a large South Asian population, seniors of Indian, Pakistani, and various other backgrounds formed a walking club at a local park. The community center at that park served as a congregate meal site funded by the Older Americans Act, but the South Asian elders could not participate. There were no nefarious signs telling them to “Keep Out,” but there were invisible barriers.

Language is usually the most obvious culprit, but in this case, the menu itself was a barrier because the Muslims could only eat meat that is halal and most of the Hindus were vegetarians. The staff and the regular attenders of the meal program did not mean to exclude the South Asian elders—in truth, they were barely aware of their neighbors—but when an older person “chooses” not to participate, it’s natural to assume that she or he simply don’t need or care for the food, so they simply did not act. Meanwhile, the South Asian elders, like so many other immigrants unfamiliar with programs and resources in America, had resigned themselves to being invisible.

Later, learning that older people in Cambodiatown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo had lunch programs that met their cultural needs, community organizers in the South Asian community and other Asian ethnic community-based organizations worked together with the Area Agency on Aging, the community center staff, and the contracted meal provider to pilot a program serving vegetarian meals catered by a nearby Indian restaurant that everyone, including non-South Asians, could eat together once a week. Things are, of course, more complicated than a “happily ever after” story, but it takes hard work to build a more inclusive society!

“Asians” Are the Fastest Growing Group in America

According to Census data, people of Asian ancestry are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, growing by 46% between 2000 and 2010. Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers have been contributing to the U.S. economy since the mid to late 1880s. Through the 1900s, Asian populations flourished in Hawai’i, and cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, which have neighborhoods designated as Little Tokyo, Chinatown, or any number of other “someplace”-towns.

Over the years, Asian immigrants have built communities outside of these established regions. Wartime displacement led to communities springing up in somewhat unexpected places, like the Hmong in the Twin Cities area and Cambodians in Lowell, Mass., who have learned to cope with winter weather not seen in Southeast Asia! More recently, Asian American communities in Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina, and North Dakota have seen the most expansion, with particularly significant jumps in South Asian populations.

As the Asian American population continues to grow, the need for disaggregated data becomes more critical. It’s impossible to develop policies and programs to address disparities unless we can see people in their specific contexts. The term “Asian American” doesn’t even hold meaning to most immigrants from Asian, especially elders. A person from Korea speaks a different language, has different cultural values, and holds different religious beliefs than someone raised in Cambodia.

Lumping everyone together masks disparities in specific ethnic groups. Concerns such as poverty are often framed as a black and brown issue. Often, Asian Americans are not even mentioned in policy reports on poverty, presumably because the population is smaller and the poverty rates for Asian American elders taken as a whole seem insignificant. However, when broken down by ethnicity, about one in five Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, and Korean elders live in poverty, which is similar to the poverty rates of African American and Latino elders.

From “Invisible” to “Included”

Although Asian immigrants struggle with getting lumped together when they arrive in the America, many have learned the power of working together to share resources and advocate for culturally appropriate solutions. There are many examples of this, from the South Asian elders who were literally inspired to ask for a seat at the congregate meal program table to senior housing in Little Tokyo, where Japanese and Korean immigrants live side by side despite the longstanding historical differences between their home countries.

The Asian American population, and therefore the number of Asian American elders, is growing, not only in size, but also diversity and geographic distribution. The Aging Network should lead the way in including Asian American elders and their families in conversations about poverty, wellness, housing, caregiving not just in the month of May, but every day.


Amy Phillips, MPA, is the Director of Senior Services at the Little Tokyo Service Center, a non-profit social service and community development agency in Los Angeles, where she oversees a multilingual staff serving the Asian American community throughout Los Angeles County. She also co-chairs the Asian & Pacific Islander Older Adults Task Force, a committee of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. Amy is a member of the Network on Multicultural Aging (NOMA) Council for ASA where she helps develop programs and contributes to ASA’s educational mission.

This article was brought to you by ASA’s Network on Multicultural Aging (NOMA).

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