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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Asian seniors work into their golden years

The recent shootings at Monterey Park and Half-Moon Bay refocused attention on a segment of the population that has long remained invisible and isolated–immigrant Asian seniors who continue to work for a living well into their golden years. Their stories stay untold, and they are part of a growing undocumented population impacted by age, illness, and lack of access to healthcare and benefits.

As these factors multiply, they jeopardize the health and well-being of this vulnerable demographic and exacerbate their feelings of fear, isolation, and invisibility.

“We are talking about everything from domestic workers, farm workers, street vendors, construction workers, said Rita Medina at an EMS briefing on Feb. 2, where a panel of experts explored ways to better serve immigrant elders who feel invisible and isolated and experience mental health issues.

Medina is Deputy Director of state policy and advocacy at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Los Angeles (CHIRLA). She said that many of these immigrants are still working in their 70s, in what should be their golden years, because they don’t have access to social security benefits or retirement in a real formalized way. “Their bodies are physically breaking down because of the work that they’re doing knee problems from bending and construction, back problems from working as a domestic worker.”

But “they have to continue to work because of the absence of any real solutions at the federal level.”

Experience of trauma

In her recent book Last Boat out of Shanghai, Asian American author Helen Zia interviewed a hundred elder Chinese immigrants in their 70s, 80s, and 90s about the experience of trauma in their lives. She learned that this demographic of API elders felt invisible but kept silent about their personal stories, not even sharing them with their children.

“Invisibility reinforces their sense of isolation,” said Zia, “and with the isolation comes fear,” and, the recent incidents at Monterey Park and Halfmoon Bay triggered those feelings.

Growing up in times of war is a violent and traumatic experience for migrants and exiles added Laura Som a former Cambodian Chinese refugee who escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide when she was about 10 years old. Refugees like her have struggled with PTSD and mental health for many decades.

“I grew up in America witnessing my elders and my communities mental health deterioration from the aftermath of wars, extreme violence, and neglect by the mainstream community.”

Asian seniors depend on family

Dr. Brett Sevilla, medical director of the Asia Pacific counseling and treatment centers in Los Angeles, confirmed that elders from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos still struggle with PTSD 50 years after the wars. “Many of them still worry about communists coming for them in the United States.” After seeing videos of attacks on Asian elders, many elders are afraid to leave home and still experience multiple stressors that jeopardize their mental health, he added.

Sevilla explained their dependency on family triggers senior isolation. “Many cannot access health care because of language, transportation, insurance, and financial hardship. When younger generations move away for work or education, the elders may feel disrespected, abandoned, or become isolated due to limited acculturation and lack of assistance.”

Increasing age-related illness, disability and death, and losing identity and mobility, create barriers to mental health care explained Sevilla. What’s worse is the shameful stigma of mental illness in Asian communities which equates any psychiatric condition with being crazy. “Psychotherapies are unfamiliar and counterintuitive, given that one should not talk about personal problems outside of one’s family,” said Sevilla. Seniors may reject Western medications or take them inconsistently, overall, a situation that can exhaust families.

Aging and undocumented

The demographic includes an increasing number of aging immigrant undocumented seniors. A 2019 study by the American Community Survey spotlighted 17,000 folks who were undocumented and 65 and over in California.

This is “a population that is only going to continue to grow and grow undocumented,” said Medina. Her organization is working to expand access to a variety of benefits in California for people over 50.

As climate disasters in CA force farmworkers to resort to a different type of work when the fields flooded, senior immigrant farmworkers, some of whom are alone in this country,  have few options to make a living.

In California, seniors in poor health have continued to work, in pain, paying taxes in the system, but cannot access social security benefits because they are undocumented. They have no retirement to look forward to.

Some have waited for over 10 plus years to adjust their status. But even if they adjust their status, and eventually access benefits, the low-wage, inconsistent jobs they’ve worked for most of their lives will not sustain them financially, warned Medina.

No nest egg for some Asian seniors

It’s an opportunity Medina added, to highlight the fact that there is no retirement, nest egg, and no concrete monetary support available to undocumented and immigrant seniors.

“We really have to look at this whole picture of what is somebody’s work history here in the United States, and what that looks like at the end of their ability to work.

For now, California has now expanded Medicaid to people 50 and informed them of benefits for the undocumented, like the driver’s license. Governor Newsom committed to expanding food benefits to undocumented seniors 55 and older, but that has been delayed until 2027. But there’s still a gap.

Culturally congruent care

As Executive Director of the May Center, Som brings healing resources to her community with a focus on providing culturally congruent care to fill the gap that mainstream services cannot provide. Asian seniors avoid seeking timely and appropriate help to address mental health disorders because of obstacles to care, added Sohm, like the need for interpreters, therapists who speak Cambodian, cost considerations, and lack of cultural sensitivity. The infrastructure for seniors is inadequate.

There’s a lack of investments in existing resources within the communities of color by funders, foundations, and government leaders, and a lack of health insurance coverage for non-traditional services that are traditional within the Asian communities. This creates insurmountable barriers for many immigrant seniors, whatever their ethnicity.

A call to action

Seniors working until they are older and dealing with physical stress on the body are a group who are unwell and really need care and support, declared Medina.

Dr. Sevilla said his agency’s approach to overcoming barriers included locating offices in Asian enclaves, placing staff in local schools, and providing culturally affirming services in the client’s native language. Linking families to community resources, offering vocational rehabilitation housing and psychosocial recovery programs, and conducting community outreach through culturally respectful dialogue are helping to negotiate a common understanding of what may cause problems. A sign this approach is working is the increasing number of our referrals to their clinics, added Dr. Sevilla.

“That’s a sign that we’re making progress and raising awareness, decreasing stigma, and providing hope.”

Som urged residents, city leaders, housing developers, and policymakers to become activists for change. She advised advocates to identify the most urgent needs in the community and learn how the power structure works. They should demand that local leaders invest in communities of color, by providing resources for integrated mental health services that are linguistically and culturally appropriate for Asian communities. And she encouraged people to exercise their right to vote for policies and initiatives that align with community needs for wellness and well-being.

 “Organize your community at whatever level meets people where they are, and refused to accept the worn-out excuses.”

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...