Aging as a Chinese immigrant in Boston

By Yidan Sun
BU News Service

What is it like to be an elderly in a foreign country and don’t know how to speak the language?

In Boston, if you’re an Asian, elderly and over age 65, you’ll be taken good care of at the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center by social workers who speak the same language with similar cultural backgrounds with you.

About 32 Asian elderly gathered to sing traditional Chinese songs in the hall of Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, a community service center in Chinatown, Boston, on March 29, 2019. With song books in hand, the elderly people went page by page and sang in groups.

“The moon shines upon the broad land in China as the fishing boats anchor by the shore,” Jenny Wu sang wholeheartedly, the song being one of her favorites. She came to the U.S. in her thirties in 1974. Feeling lonely at home, she joined the Center three years ago. Though her throat is damaged, she joins the group singing each Friday.

“I’ve made friends here through singing, like the woman next to me,” said Wu.

Though these elderly people come from different provinces in China and other Asian countries such as Vietnam, most of them speak Cantonese as their primary language. They eat traditional Chinese food, celebrate traditional festivals and sing songs together in the Center.

About 12 of the 32 elderly are above 90 years old and many of them suffer from memory loss and dementia. The social workers created a ‘memory café’ to help them strengthen memories. Christina Lee, an intern at the Center, designed a map game that asks the elderly to match their hometowns in a blank map and describe their neighborhoods.

“I figured that because they have a lot of loyalty and affiliation with their hometowns,” said Lee. “Like one of the common questions that you ask them is like, where are you from? Where is your hometown? It’s something that still holds a lot of significance to them.”

With an emphasis on families and hometown, the map game was specially designed for Chinese and Asian culture. Bess Lin, the director of the Adult Day Health program at the Center, said that the map game not only helps these elderly people bring memories back then also sparks conversations among them.

Bess Lin, director of Adult Day Health Program at the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, works in office on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Photo by Yidan Sun/BU News Service)

Lin, the director of Adult Day Health Program at the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, is working in her office on Friday, March 29, 2019.

“They will ask a lot of private questions that in the Western culture we don’t ask for,” said Lin. In memory café, these elderly people get to know each other through these questions and share life experiences.

“In Chinese culture, they are more familiar, more tend to live as a group, sing as a group, and talk as a group,” Lin said.

However, the lack of information about activities that are specific to this population make it more difficult for social workers like Lin and Lee to design more games like this.

“If you just Google online activities for elderly, it’s very based on like Western American culture, things like playing jazz or bingo, and things like that, or like gardening,” Lee said. “It’s just not stuff that’s very familiar to Chinese culture at all.”

It’s not easy to find more social workers like Lin and Lee who are bilingual and also have elder care expertise. Including the staff in the kitchen, there are about only 10 people work in the Center.

“There’s lots of social workers that speak English, but there’s not so many who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, or not so many Chinese or Asian social workers in general,” Lee said.

Besides the lack of information and shortage of bilingual professional social worker, the requirement of insurance for immigrant elderly is another obstacle. The Massachusetts state government provides insurance for Adult Day Health Program through MassHealth for elderly over 65, however, the immigrant elderly face more challenges.

“Not everyone is able to get that insurance, whether they need it or not,” Lee said. “If you haven’t been in the U.S. for long enough, if you’re undocumented, it’s a bit hard to get the insurance coverage.”

Recently a new bill about the Adult Day Health program has come out, and the directors of the program around the state are trying to push for an update and revision to insurance amount that were fixed since 2012. Over the years, the costs have changed.

The Great Boston Chinese Golden Age Center is just one example of the immigrant elderly community service in Boston. According to the 2010 Census, Asian elderly take about 9% of the elderly population in Boston, the Black or African American take about 25%, and Hispanic or Latino take about 10%. Lin said she’d like to explore and see how other community and how other ADH programs serve a different population of people.

“There will be something that we could do together in the future,” Lin said.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.