For Chinese & Other Elders, Growing Isolation Is Major Health Challenge

For Chinese & Other Elders, Growing Isolation Is Major Health Challenge

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Photo: Researcher Wang Qi, of Georgia State University,

Older Chinese Immigrants May
Seek Independence from Families


“Chinese elders are among the fastest-growing segments of the aging population in the United States,” according to the U.S. Census, said Yiwei Chen, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, one of numerous researchers who presented their studies of the fast-increasing population of Asian seniors at November’s Gerontological Society of America (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting.

Chen, who researched the quality of life of Chinese elders in this country, explained, “More than 80 percent of U.S. Chinese older adults were born in foreign countries and about 30 percent of them immigrated to the United States after the age of 60.”

Key determinants of seniors’ quality of life, Chen examined, were length of time in the U.S., language proficiency and social relations. She said that family relationships represent the micro-system or the immediate environment of individuals that directly influence individual’s health and well being.

She cautioned, though, “Family relationship is a double-edged sword, a positive family relationship can give older adults necessary support, a negative one may cause bad influence.”

Chen observed, “To enhance the quality of life of Chinese older adults, it is important not only to increase individual’s acculturation level, but also increase it in the family context.” She found that Chinese older adults are less acculturated compared to other ethnic minority groups. “Chinese older adults primarily rely on family for support and have filial piety cultural values” that stress family members’ responsibility to their elders.

But Chen noted that most older Chinese elders immigrants have lacked resources to acculturate. What’s worse, she said, is that there are acculturation gaps within families. For example, family miscommunication can result between elder and their grandchildren, who become acculturated to American ways through school and work experience.

Wang Qi, of Georgia State University, discussed her research about how Chinese older adults construct a sense of home in the U.S. She visited Asian American Seniors Association and several adult day care centers in Atlanta.

Qi Wang and her colleagues found that Chinese older adults’ view of home experience a shift from relying on their children or kinship to becoming more aware of their own needs and independence. She said many Chinese immigrants come to this country to reunite with their children, but over time become aware of problems and issues, such as lack of freedom or privacy while living with their children. Then they begin seeking independent life.

In the process of helping the Chinese older adults construct a sense of belonging, senior centers, community agencies, friends and other external resources play an important role in expanding the elders’ social network and helping them develop interests and hobbies.

--Ke “April” Xu

studies challenges for Chinese older immigrants construct a sense of home in the U.S.


Alzheimer's disease, hypertension and osteoporosis are among the most common diseases facing older adults. These diseases are visible and easy to draw people’s attention. However, the public is rarely aware of what experts in aging call an “invisible killer”--social isolation, which can affect both elders’ physical and mental health.

“Isolation is more than being alone, it’s the result of being disconnected from support groups of family, friends and community,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.

One-in-Six Seniors Isolated

According to AARP, about one-in-six (17 percent) of those ages 65 and older are socially isolated. Ryerson said that prolonged isolation in older adults erodes health to the extent that it can equal the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addtion, subjective feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of death by as much as 26 percent. She added that older adults who struggle financially are at even greater risk of isolation.

Ryerson, who spoke at November’s Gerontological Society of America (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting, held in New Orleans, said she considers extended isolation of a growing number of seniors to be a “stealth health threat.” She called on older adults, caregivers, family members and community institutions to pay more attention to the issue.

Key challenges for American society to address increasing elder isolation are the lack of data and research, too little public awareness of available services, poor of involvement of and coordination among agencies and other institutional stakeholders, low funding of resources, and a highly subjective and complex problem.

Ryerson emphasized, “Being alone and isolated are different. Loneliness is more about one’s subjective feelings, while being isolated can be tracked by particular symptoms.” For example, she said, research is showing that chronic isolation can be related to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and some other diseases.

People can observe from an older adult’s daily behavior, she explained, whether the elder may be developing initial symptoms associated with prolonged isolation. Typical omen of isolation may be that the older adult shows little interest in most things; has reduced physical activity; is eating unhealthy junk food over time and little else; or is not maintaining his or her residence, such as not repairing things around the home.

Prime Targets for Scams

Especially alarming, Ryerson said, is that social isolation makes many older adults a prime target for scammers. She stressed that isolated old adults may be especially targeted by scam telephone calls or e-mails that seem friendly or threaten the senior with trouble unless payments ate made immediately.

Once seniors become victims of scams, they frequently feel so ashamed about the experience that they remain silent. Ryerson also noted that seniors may be subjected to secondary victimization when family members learn of the fraud and blame the older person.

Such scams, she observed, “not only affects the older adults, but also affects the whole community.” Ryerson said isolation can damage elders’ ability to engage in their communities.

To create greater awareness and understanding of how serious social isolation may be among older adults, Ryerson suggested, for example, that more needs to be done to develop affordable hearing aides and prescription eyeglasses, because hearing loss and vision impariment are leading causes of isolation. Neither are now covered by Medicare, and medical instrument companies need to step up efforts to reduce costs. Accessible and affordable transportation options are needed as well.

Ryerson also called on younger generations to get actively involved, such as volunteering with Meals on wheels or other community programs. She noted that AARP has produced related research and also offers several program to support older adults, such as in using technology to facilitate social connection, developing models of housing that include new technlogy, health and social services so older adults can age in place.

Ke “April” Xu wrote these articles for Sing Tao Daily with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund. Also, you can read her original Chinese language stories: “Growing Isolation Is an ‘Invisible Killer’ of Older People” and “Older Chinese Immigrants May Seek Independence from Families.” 

xuke ryerson.jpg Photo: Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.