Lost in Translation: The Loneliness Epidemic among Asian American Elders
The last time my grandparents returned to China from the States, I was around eleven. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to see them again for a while, a strange omen of what would come in the following years, and my distress had turned into selfish annoyance. I never understood why my grandparents would only stay for a few months at a time whenever they visited my family, and it upset me greatly. As my dad’s car pulled out of the driveway and sped towards JFK, taking away from me two of my favorite people, my mom patted me on the back. “They’re just lonely here. It’s hard to make friends.”
I had observed my grandparents' daily schedules; they’d pace around my neighborhood, come home to cook, and go to sleep. I only realized how lonely their lives were when I was subjected to a similar routine as them for COVID. What I couldn’t grasp at age eleven was the problem that occurs quite frequently with Chinese immigrants in their old age. They visit their children’s families for a few months and find themselves stuck in the house, reduced to doing chores, walking around the neighborhood for entertainment, and having to search for friends in a sea of people who don’t speak their language (which, in my case, was the suburbs of Westchester, New York). They have limited access to transportation, a disconnection from technology, and heavy financial reliance on their children. Their only source of social, financial, and emotional support is from their kids, their grandkids, mere children who may already struggle to connect to them due to language barriers, and each other.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, only 54% of Asian American elders said they were satisfied with their lives, compared with 80% of other respondents. As the community that struggles with the misconception that they are doing better than other racial groups, Asian American elders are often neglected in mental health demographics and caught in the crosshairs of ageism and racism, leaving them to experience elder exploitation at an extreme due to language barriers. Recently, according to Nicole Chong and Mable Chan of the New York Times, casinos in major cities around the country have been marketing their industry to Asian audiences to attract gamblers, which “can be a gateway to addiction and debt” and they “rely on the [casino’s] weekly bus routine for entertainment and income.” For Asian elders who have limited connections to their community, casinos are the only form of emotional support that they have, as they provide them with a way to socialize with people from similar backgrounds but create a ruthless cycle of financial dependence on exploitative industries.
The problems that older generations of Asian immigrants face are a combination of the fallacies of our economy: language barriers, xenophobia that has only grown worse with the pandemic, and a fear of seeking support.
It is essential that we work to provide Asian American elders with more language and cultural resources along with community outreach to offer support and resources. Quite often, there are services available and people who they can connect with - but we must work together to prioritize social connection and ensure that Asian American elders can maintain a sense of belonging wherever they are.
About the Author: Nicole is a 16 year old junior living in Westchester County. In her free time, she enjoys reading, volunteering with animals at the Greenburgh Nature Center, and playing the piano.